Tip Sheet: Wedge rule already being felt
Kickoff returns in preseason have been safer, noticeably shorter
It could be an anomaly or merely a function of myriad variables that are an inherent part of NFL preseason play.
But through the first two full weeks of exhibition games, the average kickoff return for the league is 3 yards less than a year ago at the same point of the exhibition schedule, and 3½ yards less than it was for the entire 2008 preseason.
Just as notable is that the average kickoff return so far is more than a yard shorter than it was during the 2008 regular season.
The average return for the first two weeks of the 2009 preseason is 21.7 yards, with only five runbacks of 50 yards or more and no touchdowns.
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Certainly teams are still experimenting with their kickoff groups. At this point, most clubs haven't yet exposed their primary kickoff return men to game action. And, as several special-teams coaches pointed out, they are auditioning rookies and younger veterans for spots on the coverage units.
There is one major difference, though, on kickoff returns between 2009 and 2008: the so-called "wedge" rule.
Adopted at the league meetings in March, and primarily designed to reduce injuries on kickoffs, the rule bans the use of wedges comprised by more than two players.
Teams historically have used a three- or four-man wedge, usually comprised of bigger players (offensive and defensive linemen).
"There were too many injuries [on kickoffs] that involved the wedge," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee. "When we met with [veteran] players at the combine, as we do every year, it was the first thing they brought up when we asked if there were any changes they wanted. Plus, we wanted to try to add more spacing on kickoff returns, to incorporate some elements of a punt return."
Mike Pereira, NFL vice president of officiating, said there were seven injuries per 100 kicking plays in 2008, and just five injuries per 100 other plays.
"You have a 50-yard head start and you run into your garage door -- that's what it feels like," former NFL safety Matt Bowen told the New York Times.
"It's always high impact, and that causes a lot of head and neck injuries," said former Atlanta special teams star Elbert Shelley, a four-time Pro Bowler.
So far, the competition committee seems to have succeeded in legislating a safer game, and so the rule has achieved its primary purpose. It's believed there have been no serious injuries on kickoffs, and Pereira said there have been zero wedge-related penalties.
But an unwitting result of the rule is that without wedge blocking, returns are shorter. At least so far.
The 1-yard difference between the 2008 regular season and 2009 preseason to date might not seem like much of a discrepancy. Yet in a league that measures critical distances by yards, the drop-off from 22.8 yards in the 2008 regular season to 21.7 yards during this preseason is a relatively notable development.
Only twice during the past 20 years has the kickoff return average fluctuated up or down by a full yard in the span of a year, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Since 2005, average kick returns have increased every season. The average return for last season was the highest since 1972 (23.1).
As with just about any other change, McKay feels that coaches probably will catch up in two years to the recently enacted prohibition and find different ways to block on kickoffs.
But special-teams coaches are working much harder to compensate.
"If you're the team kicking off, it's made you throw out your playbook," said Atlanta special teams coach Keith Armstrong. "From a receiving standpoint, you're seeing a lot more one-on-one blocking. I think you'll see a lot of teams using tight ends [as wedge blockers] because now you need a guy who can play in space."
Beyond using smaller and more athletic players as wedge blockers, teams are using a two-man wedge, a pair of two-man wedges, or a two-man wedge with a third player beside or behind the wedge blockers.
"It changes the point of attack," said Buffalo Bills assistant head coach Bobby April, twice selected as the special teams coach of the year. "If you use a three-man wedge, it's like taking away one-third of your blockers.
"Imagine if they did that to, say, offensive lines."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.