Commentary

A strong opening argument

The numbers show deferring on the first-half kickoff doesn't make sense

Originally Published: April 11, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

As mentioned in this space over the past year, I'm not a big fan of the deferred kickoff at the beginning of the game.

ESPN Stats & Information just released a trend review of offenses, and it backs up what I always believed. The NFL continues to evolve through the pass. Since 2008, designed pass plays have risen from 57.2 percent of plays to 58 in 2009 to 59 in 2010. Designed running plays dropped from 42.8 to 42 to 41.

With that type of designed aggressiveness, it seems to go against the trend to defer receiving a kickoff until the second half and not run those scripted offensive plays to jump out to a three- or seven-point lead to start the game. Many of your responses on this issue differ from my opinion, which is fine.

So, for the purposes of discussion, let's present the numbers from last season. The following comes from Elias.

The surprising note is that deferred kickoffs were reasonably frequent. Coaches deferred on 77 of the 256 coin tosses, a stunning 30 percent. Obviously, we're not debating deferring kickoffs when the weather conditions are bad. That definitely can be a smart strategy to find the favorable weather conditions for critical parts of games.

To support my theory, the team that received the opening kickoff was first to score 59.8 percent of the time. Even more telling is the team that received the opening kickoff scored 34.8 percent of the time on that first possession, netting 53 touchdowns and 36 field goals.

If a strong offensive script can fulfill a long week of practicing and scheming and produce a lead on the opening possession 34.8 percent of the time or eventually provide field position to get the first score almost 60 percent of the time, why give that up?

For supporters of the deferred kickoffs, 55.8 percent of the teams that deferred the kickoff won games. Many were good teams with defensive head coaches. The Jets and Dolphins were among the more active of the deferring teams. Both teams, though, complained at times of slow offensive starts.

With kickoffs now at the 35, more teams may play the field position game instead of the offensive game and try to kick off, get a touchback and make an opponent start a drive from its 20.

What are your thoughts?

From the inbox

Q: You've mentioned a couple of times how John Elway is not sold on Tim Tebow as a franchise quarterback. If Elway does decide to go a different direction at quarterback, is there any chance Tebow gets moved? What teams would be interested in using him to his full potential?

Dan in State College, Pa.

A: I don't see Tebow being moved this year. Kyle Orton would have the better chance of being traded. First of all, a Tebow trade wouldn't net much of a draft choice. In fact, it might be a trade similar to the Brady Quinn deal in which the Browns received running back Peyton Hillis and a couple of low-round draft choices. It's better to develop Tebow than just dump him, but Elway must be on the lookout for a franchise quarterback.

Q: It's draft time, when many writers (including you) start to analyze all the bad picks that teams have made over the years. My belief is that it's the teams themselves that make the picks turn out bad. Do you really think if Aaron Rodgers went to the mess that was the San Francisco 49ers a few years ago he would have turned out to be what he is? Some players like Peyton Manning, of course, are exceptions to this rule, but players like him come along once in a generation.

Brad in Beverly, Mass. A: Quarterbacks make a team. We saw that last season with Sam Bradford and the Rams. We've seen how Matt Ryan made the Falcons legit. It would be interesting to see how Rodgers would have done in San Francisco. Coming out of college, he had a more manufactured throwing delivery. Given the chance to sit behind Brett Favre in Green Bay, Rodgers went back to the natural throwing motion he had in high school. If he had been forced to play that first year as a 49er, it might have made him a failure. Had the 49ers gotten a more seasoned Rodgers, though, they might have had several runs at the playoffs.

Q: John, I have a question regarding the scouting combine and pro days. I have never understood why teams place such a heavy emphasis on them, especially the scouting combine. It makes more sense, to me, that a team would have a better idea of what a prospect can do judging from his actual playing time in college games. Why is it then that every year a handful of prospects "climb the draft boards" simply because they have a very successful combine? So they can run a good 40 under controlled conditions, or bench press 225 pounds a certain number of times. Who cares? It seems logic would dictate that what they did under actual game conditions would be a much better indicator of what kind of football player they will turn out to be.

Andy in Bel Air, Md.

A: You're right that game tape is more important than the measurables, but you have to have the measurables to determine the value of a draftable player. The combine is important because it's the only place you get to see a player do drills in comparison to other players at the position. The stopwatch doesn't lie, so you need to have a legitimate 40 time on a player. You need to judge the strength of a player. Teams draft football players, but they can use the info from combines and workouts to judge pure athletic ability.

Q: Is accuracy really that big of a concern for teams looking at Jake Locker? Michael Vick was only at 54.2% in his final year at Virginia Tech, but he was still drafted No. 1 overall and has made multiple Pro Bowls despite not passing over 60% in his NFL career until last season. I'm not saying Locker has the wheels Vick does, but he's pretty close and has the intangibles Vick didn't.

David in Seattle

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireIs Eagles' QB Michael Vick good trade bait?
A: This may sound strange, but it's hard to use the Vick comparison because the game has changed so much since he was starting for the Atlanta Falcons. When he was drafted in 2001, there weren't enough elite quarterbacks dominating the sport. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were just getting started back then. Running teams led by running quarterbacks could be more successful than today. All that changed around 2005 and 2006 after the class of 2004 quarterbacks took control. Running teams had a harder time and quarterbacks' ability to lead fourth-quarter comebacks through the air became more important. Thanks to his hard work and great coaching, Vick became an effective passer last year and can compete with the top quarterbacks. That's not to say Locker won't become more accurate in time. He's throwing the ball much better each day, but teams are still afraid he might not be accurate enough.

Q: With the questions surrounding all of the QBs and many teams coming out and saying that none are locks to be good NFL players, why are so many projected to come off the board through the top of the second round? GMs and coaches constantly say that the only thing worse than passing on a good QB is drafting a bad one, so why gamble, especially in the first five to 10 picks? With every team at the top also needing defensive help, shouldn't a strong defensive class this year also sway many teams to pass on suspect passers?

From William in Flemington, N.J.

A: That's the fascinating part of this draft. This is a deep group of quarterback prospects at the top, but they all have questions. With no free agency or veteran trades and so many teams needing quarterbacks, the labor situation has inflated the need to take these quarterbacks. But I still think six or seven would have gone in the first two rounds if this were a normal offseason. This isn't a deep offensive draft overall. Three years from now some front-office decision-makers might lose their jobs if they made the wrong decisions, but those who drafted the right quarterbacks will be in good shape.

Q: With his heavy involvement in the labor situation, do you see Drew Brees deserving of losing all the popularity that he has? People are calling him greedy and selfish, but I don't think they've noticed that he has explained himself and is doing it for the benefit of others, not just himself. Please touch upon this issue because Drew Brees is one of the most kind-hearted people in the NFL and I don't think he's deserving of such hatred.

Jason from Boston

A: I think he should gain a lot of respect and very little criticism. First of all, he is trying to help the players get an acceptable deal, and his association isn't asking for more money. They are trying to salvage whatever they can from the last deal. Brees has handled himself with professionalism and class in his dealings with owners.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireWould Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert be a good choice for the Bills with the third pick?
Q: Other than, "With the third pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills select Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama," is there really any way the Bills continue their less-than-stellar track record of first-round picks?

Shane in Rochester, N.Y.

A: If they take Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert, I think they will be fine. They have needed to address the quarterback position correctly since Jim Kelly retired. Newton would be better than Gabbert, but both would work for them. Taking a defensive player won't turn them around. A quarterback can.

Q: I feel all this pre-draft scrutiny of both Gabbert and Newton is not good news and a waste of time. I feel both are good kids and will be at least decent starting QBs in the league. So I feel the debate is, "Would you draft for potential or the most safe pick?" On one hand you have Gabbert, who just off his Wonderlic score would lead you to believe he will pick up an NFL offense quickly, while on Newton's draft report they say we can rewrite how QB is played. In that aspect, Newton stands alone in this draft class.

From Haile in Durham, N.C.

A: I agree with you and I believe the Carolina Panthers and Bills agree with both of us. I think both quarterbacks will go in the top three picks. I love your reference to taking safe picks. There is no safe pick if you are a team with quarterback needs and pass on a quarterback. The Dolphins made the safe choice in taking Jake Long and passing on Matt Ryan. Now, the Dolphins might have to draft another quarterback to challenge Chad Henne, while Ryan is one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. Safe is not safe.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer