By Tom E. Curran
My buddy Rich Levine, who ably columnizes mostly on the Celtics, stepped over today to weigh in on the "safety" issue related to the NFL's kickoff changes. Enjoy. As a practical matter, though, how does moving the kickoff line of scrimmage from the 30 to the 35 impact the Patriots both on kickoffs and returns?Check out some of the numbers. First, on kickoffs, Stephen Gostkowski has gotten progressively more explosive on kickoffs. Here's his year-by-year touchback stats2006: 12 touchbacks on 81 kickoffs (14.8 percent)2007: 15 on 112 (13.4)2008: 17 on 95 (17.9)2009: 21 on 91 (23.1)2010: 15 on 42 (35.7)That 35.7 percent - in limited duty - was second in the NFL behind the Ravens' Billy Cundiff, who had touchbacks on 50.7 of his kickoffs in 2010. (The Ravens can basically just send Cundiff out there by himselfnow if they want to this year.) Only two other kickers were over 30 percent in touchbacks (Matt Prater, Denver: 35.1; Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland: 31.2). Four players were over 30 percent in 2009. Gostkowski was 11th in touchback percentage in '09, but he was the highest among cold-weather, non-dome kickers.Even though he underwent surgery on his injured right quad, you have to figure a young athlete like Gostkowski will return at or even beyond the same level in 2011. He's a ridiculously talented athlete and - with rehab and conditioning what it is these days - the layoff and chance to strengthen could even help him. Mike Reiss at ESPNBoston.com did some research on the touchbacks Gostkowski had in 2010. He found that 22 of Gostkowski's 40 kicks traveled into the end zone (again, 15 touchbacks). If the LOS had been the 35, seven more kicks would have traveled in. So if even five more of those kicks resulted in touchbacks, Gostkowski conceivably would have been at 50 percent. And that's good for New Englandfor a few reasons. Not onlyis 80 yards a long way for an offense to go to score a touchdown, but every touchback means a high-speed, high-collision play on which the risk of injury and the threat to team personnelis high. Take it a step further: Kickoff returns are flash plays that can alter momentum if a big one is broken.
In the AFC East, the Jets have one of the best in the business in Brad Smith. In 2010, Smith led all returners with over 25 returns, averaging 28.6 yards on 50 returns with two touchdowns. Miami's Nolan Carroll averaged 24.3 on 27 returns. Buffalo's CJ Spiller returned a kicoff for a touchdown in the second game of the season but no Buffalo returner was in the top 40 in return average. How does New England's return game get affected by this? Well, Brandon Tate - who was terrific early in the season, then showed an amazing aptitude to not make anybody miss as the season wore on - finished fifth in the NFL among returners with 25 or more chances with a per return average of 25.8. Because his greatest attribute is speed rather than elusiveness, you may see Tate continue to bring out kicks that sail up to 5 yards deep in the end zone (one of his touchdowns was a 103-yard return). But it will hamper the explosiveness of Dan Connolly. Elusive. Not fast.