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Eagles plot strategy for new kickoff rules

PHILADELPHIA — Plenty of fans have said they can’t wait until the opening kickoff of the NFL season over the years, but it’s possible they never meant that more literally than right now.

The truth is, the actual kickoff of an NFL game had become quite a bore in recent years.

A season ago, with the introduction of the fair catch on kickoffs, the league’s touchback rate skyrocketed to an all-time high 78 percent and only four kickoffs were returned for touchdowns, matching the lowest total in the last 40 seasons.

Something had to be done because there was a time when the kickoff return had some real entertainment value and momentum-changing meaning.

It had become a reason not to worry so much about missing something while standing in line for a beer or the bathroom, two things that are obviously related. Now, after the most significant kickoff rule change in league history, there’s reason to care about getting to your seat in time to see the opening kick.

There’s also a lot of teaching to be done for the league’s special teams coaches.

Here are the new rules for kickoffs, according to the NFL.

For the Eagles, the anxiously awaited opening kickoff will come on Friday, Sept. 6 in Brazil against the Green Bay Packers. It was hardly surprising Thursday that the line of questioning for Michael Clay, the team’s fourth-year special teams coordinator, focused primarily on how he is preparing his players for the new kickoff rules.

“The great thing about it is 31 other teams are in the same boat in terms of that,” Clay said. “We have spent a good amount of time, not taking away from other aspects, because obviously it’s a new rule, you have to get used to it.”

The rules are patterned after the XFL’s 2023 kickoff rules, which had a 97% kickoff return rate that season. Only one kickoff, however, was returned for a touchdown, so perhaps we should be at least a little skeptical of the entertainment value of the new rules.

Clay said there has been a lot of collaboration among teams as they prepare for the new rules and that they are not identical to what the XFL was doing.

“I think that’s the cool thing about the special teams community … everyone respects each other at a high level and bounces ideas off each other,” Clay said. “Hey, what do you see here? How do you see it from peers and other aspects of the league? It’s going to be exciting and interesting all at the same time because you really don’t know what to expect because nobody’s really even seen it. Even from an XFL aspect, there’s still a lot of nuances from the XFL rules, what they implemented, to what we’re trying to get done here in the NFL.”

We could see some chaos and confusion in the early going, which should be entertaining, and ultimately there figures to be a lot of strategy in all aspects, starting with where kicker Jake Elliott places the ball when the Eagles kick off.

“I think we all appreciate what Jake does not just as a field goal kicker, but as a kicker in general,” Clay said. “He’s so talented in what he does, and being able to catch wind of this, (Elliott said), ‘Hey, I have an opportunity to maybe work on a couple of specialty kicks that we can use to help out our kickoff coverage unit.”

Clay noted that punter Braden Mann also has a ton of experience at kickoffs, so it will be interesting to see if he has some specialty kicks that the Eagles attempt to use.

As for the return aspect of things, Clay isn’t sure who will handle that job yet, but he has a long list of candidates. Now the trick is figuring out what kind of returner works best under the new rules.

“Who knows what the style is going to look like?” Clay said. “What we’re really trying to do is to eat up as many yards as possible going north and south, but going into this whole thing we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”

The Eagles’ most prolific NFL kick returner under the old rules was recently reinstated cornerback Isaiah Rodgers. As a rookie with the Colts in 2020, he finished third in the league with a 28.8-yard average and he also returned a kick for a touchdown. In three seasons with the Colts, he averaged 27 yards on 61 returns.

Wide receiver Britain Covey had success as a kick returner at Utah and returned 10 kicks as a rookie, but his NFL success has come as a punt returner. Running back back Kenneth Gainwell has nine career kick returns with a 17.3-yard average.

Rookie running back Will Shipley averaged 26.6 yards on 34 returns at Clemson, so he’s sure to get a long look at the team’s No. 3 running back.

“It’s going to be trial and error,” Clay said. “It’s going to be, ‘Hey, let’s see what it looks like in a live setting … hey, we don’t like this, let’s try it again. We do like this. Let’s keep this and add to this.’ It’s going to be fun.”

It’s going to be different, for sure. Perhaps it will even make you wish those beer and bathroom lines weren’t quite so long.

Source: Berkshire mont

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