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Need to Know: Will Redskins’ Gruden really take chances on kickoffs?

Aug 4, 2016, 5:05 AM EDT

Gruden minicamp 2016

RICHMOND—Here is what you need to know on this Thursday, August 4, seven days before the Washington Redskins open their preseason in Atlanta against the Falcons.


Today’s schedule: Walkthrough 10:30; Jay Gruden press conference 2:45; Practice 3:00

—The Redskins last played a game 207 days ago. It will be 39 days until they host the Steelers in their 2016 season opener.

Days until: Preseason vs. Jets @FedEx Field 15; Final roster cut 30; Cowboys @ Redskins 45

—Redskins Hall of Fame running back John Riggins was born on this date in 1949.

Breaking down camp

You shouldn’t believe everything that an NFL coach says.

Jay Gruden said this yesterday when asked about the possibility of trying to game the new rule that puts touchbacks after kickoff on the 25 yard line.

“We’re going to experiment, You know, we’ll see what Dustin [Hopkins] is good at. You know, we’re going to try some of the pooch stuff and try to pin them back. You know, we don’t want to just succumb to the 25-yard line.”

I might believe Gruden and the other coaches who talk of pooch kicking the ball if it wasn’t such a risky play. NFL coaches have a strong tendency to analyze things on a worst-case basis. What is the worst that can happen if your kicker pounds the ball through the end zone? They get the ball at the 25, five yards closer than they did before. Yes, there is a slightly better chance of scoring points on a possession that starts at the 25 compared to one that starts at the 20. But only slightly.

And while it’s true that your kicker won’t always be able to pound the ball and force a touchback Hopkins was able to do it 65 percent of the time last year. Those are pretty good odds.

What is the worst that can happen if you pooch kick it and try to pin them back? The other team could return it for a touchdown, or to deep in your territory where scoring points is virtually certain. One blown assignment or one missed tackle and you plan to try to gain five yards of field position is up in smoke.

Gruden and his NFL brethren are hesitant to go for it on fourth and one at midfield even though there is plenty of research to indicate that they should. Why? Because they would rather take heat for being overly cautious than get ripped for a failed fourth-down attempt that gave their opponent a short field to work with.

When it comes down to it, NFL coaches don’t like to gamble. Just like going for it on fourth down is gambling, pooching the ball on a kickoff when you have a kicker like Hopkins who is capable of kicking touchbacks.

Perhaps Gruden will occasionally have Hopkins boom it high and hope his coverage is solid just to make other teams think that he might. He also occasionally goes for it on fourth down in non-desperation situations. But I can almost guarantee that his default strategy on kickoffs will be to have Hopkins kick it as deep as he can. That also will be the standard procedure for nearly every other NFL head coach.

There is just no reason to believe otherwise.

Tandler on Twitter Instagram

Just Josh Norman and DeSean Jackson kicking around a soccer ball with a kid. #Redskins

A video posted by Rich (@richtandler) on

In case you missed it 

  1. colorofmyskinz - Aug 4, 2016 at 5:44 AM

    Agreed Rich. Much of what these GMs and coaches say publicly is purposeful misinformation because they know the other coaches are watching. Just like everything they say prior to the draft is to mislead the other GMs. Statements like BPA, or we are very interested in building the center of the line, or even the workouts they do to make others think that is where their interests lie. Look at how they traded down and took Josh Doctson. Total smoke and mirrors. A game of cat and mouse.

    So thanks for always trying to decode the BS for us.

    Rich, from your view point of watching these training camp practices, what is our greatest weakness we need to be concerned about?

    Have we really truly been able to evaluate the center of our lines on both sides? Specifically the NT or center of the Dline. We also hear nothing about Ionnadis, the theoretical under 300 lb. NT as claimed by Gruden.

    We are also not hearing anything about the OLB competition behind Preston now that Gallette is out. Any news there?

    Can we really evaluate running backs knowing they are not in full tackle mode, or are they? We heard about the breakaway run by Thompson, but were they allowed to tackle him? Would like to hear more about how Marshall is developing as well. Discussions about our 3 weakest spots on they team are very quite, RB, NT, and Center. Very little is discussed about progression in these position areas. That concerns me and tells me they are truly out weak spots.

    Thanks! HTTR!

    • redskins12thman - Aug 4, 2016 at 7:55 AM

      NT is a weakness but I’m unsure how much the Redskins would use one. Barry claims that the way the NFL is going, the “traditional” nose guard only plays 10 to 15 snaps a game. Is this purposeful misinformation? I don’t think so, but I may be wrong. On the other hand, is it just convenient for Barry to state this and if the team had either Bennie Logan, Brandon Williams, Lineal Joseph or Damon Harrison, would he play more snaps each game as a NT? I would think so but I may be wrong.

      With the ease, last season, that teams would often gain rushing yards against the Redskins, and the sometimes lack of pushing the pocket to pressure QB the Redskins mustered, I will just have to see how they do starting with the Steelers on September 12th. That’s when we will be able to accurately assess the Redskins’ performance; I have found preseasons to be extremely misleading. The preseason is helpful in evaluating which players the coaches want to have make the 53 and practice squad. For the last 53 spots, I think the Redskins are looking at RB, CB, OLB and special teams standouts (unless injuries rear their ugly head). The practice squad will be comprised of those, from this group, that just miss the cut, along with young athletic promising players (e.g., perhaps Jensen).

      What’s the breakdown, last season, of when the Redskins would use a NT? The number of times per game and the number of times and percentage by down?

      I do think the Redskins will experiment on kickoffs during preseason for several reasons: 1. what do they have to lose, and 2. it give the team valuable practice experience to identify and eliminate ST mistakes. But Rich’s main point is valid for the regular season, especially with the Redskins poor ST performance in recent years (last year it started to turnaround): it’s most about not screwing up and delivering a steady, strong performance, because mistakes are killer. It’s really important about winning all 3 phases of the game.

      • bangkokben - Aug 4, 2016 at 3:09 PM

        As for NT, the team is referring to short-yardage and goal line where you need a big body to plug a hole. The way the Redskins run their one-gap system if you’re not penetrating your gap you’re in the way of the backside pursuit. In short yardage, this isn’t an issue. There may the an odd situation here and there that doesn’t fit this scenario but this is the bulk of what you need from a nose tackle. With teams trying to spread the defense out, you don’t need a big lumbering blob getting in the way on outside runs. As for the guys you mentioned, some of them would have trouble not getting in the way like Pot Roast. Bennie Logan would play the nose in the situation I outlined above and then shoot the A gaps on a bunch of different plays. They need athletic strong men and depending on the player, they’ll play more.

        “What’s the breakdown, last season, of when the Redskins would use a NT? The number of times per game and the number of times and percentage by down?”

        There aren’t any easy answers. The Redskins technically used three down linemen every time they were in their base defense but did the center DL always line up over center? Usually, in their base defense they do (or over one of his shoulders) but if the offense has an unbalanced line he might not. In this case, do the coaches consider this middle DL a nose tackle? Probably but maybe not. The point is that we don’t know exactly what the coaches are saying when they say: 10-15 plays a game.

        Then there were times when Pot Roast was lining up as one of the interior pass rushers in nickle. This is technically not a NT but the fans might think he is a nose because they know that was why the team brought him in last year and aren’t aware of the formation change. The bottom line is that the Redskins were in their base defense about 30% of the time and they averaged about 66 plays a game (just under 20 snaps a game). In preseason, they might run 90% base defense.

  2. colorofmyskinz - Aug 4, 2016 at 6:30 AM

    Watched 15 minute Scot interview. He clearly feels Matt Jones will be the breakout player!!

    • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© - Aug 4, 2016 at 7:13 AM

      So let it be written. So let it be done!

  3. troylok - Aug 4, 2016 at 8:22 AM

    Gruden strikes me as a very conservative coach and therefore I don’t think he would pooch kick under normal conditions. Now, if there are 50 mile per hour winds and a driving rainstorm…

  4. sidepull - Aug 4, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    Funny. Get rid of Kai and finally land a kicker who can bang it. Now they change the rules and are going to consider pooching it. Forever they were on Kai and his inability to drive it through the end-zone making a return null. Way is a great kicker. Guess it is better to have one who can do both plus nice onside kicker.

    • redskins12thman - Aug 4, 2016 at 11:26 AM

      Plus Hopkins may be able to hit the ball higher, for more hang time, so team can make it down the field to be in a better position to give up less yards.

    • Trey Gregory - Aug 4, 2016 at 12:16 PM

      I thought the same thing when they first announced this rule sidepull. Kickers with weak legs might actually get sought after depending on what the coach wants to do.

  5. smotion55 - Aug 4, 2016 at 9:11 AM

    I would think they would do a game and team by team basis just like last year when they saw something on film and knew they had a good chance with the on–sides kick. Every team is different so they would game plan on kickoffs for each team and make adjustments . I also believe their coverage team will be better because of the better talent on this team. More willing people to play special teams has made the difference, knowing if they don’t play special teams they might not make the team. Football Players
    As far as Gruden being conservative, the better the team is and the better the defense is the more willing he might be to take a chance knowing they will hold give the ball back to the offense more often.

  6. wncskinsfan - Aug 4, 2016 at 9:54 AM

    I find this new rule change to be ridiculous.

    • redskins12thman - Aug 4, 2016 at 11:27 AM

      Well, its much better than eliminating kick-offs altogether. Believe or not, I have heard such rumblings as a possibility. That would be an awful decision.

  7. kenlinkins - Aug 4, 2016 at 1:21 PM

    Every time there is a rule change, good coaching staffs try and figure out how and when to benefit from the change. There are times when you may want to try and force a return, and times when a touch back is a good idea. Teams with better talent / play makers might still want to attack on kick offs, while other teams may want to play it safe. Most rules changes today are to protect the assets of the team (i.e. players) from injury which save the teams money (win – win). Remember the crack back block or guys who went “knee hunting” on returns? I do not want to see kick offs or punts removed from the game, nor do I want them to look like a flag football game. IMO if the NFL would just make the field wider by a few yards (due to the players being bigger / faster) they would remove a lot of the plays that injury players. A few years ago the NFL was talking about it but I never saw any results. Anyone know why this idea never took off?

    • redskins12thman - Aug 4, 2016 at 1:45 PM

      I don’t know but I wonder if ‘some NFL stadium are unable to accommodate this change without impacting seating.

      • Trey Gregory - Aug 4, 2016 at 4:57 PM

        There’s plenty of room on the sidelines to widen the field and not affect seating. The NFL is just simply hesitant to change the game that dramatically without trying other things first.

        Widening the field wouldn’t eliminate the real problem: hits to the head. But it could create a scenario where the game basically turns into nothing but dueling kick returns and occasional drives of 3 plays for a TD. Look no further than the college spread offense. The entire philosophy is that spreading the defense makes them weaker and less able to cover the offense. If you widen the field, you inherently weaken defenses and there’s no cure.

        The only real way to make the game safer without dramatically changing it is to improve the protection. There’s been countless articles you can look up about how inadequate football helmets are. And how the NFL inexplicably hasn’t done anything about it. NFL helmets don’t even pass a basic industry drop test.

        There’s still the issue of the secondary impact from the brain hitting the inside of the skull. So they still have to figure out a way to get guys to target the torso. But creating better helmets, that can absorb kinetic energy, would be a huge step.

        • kenlinkins - Aug 4, 2016 at 6:01 PM

          I remember a guy in Buffalo wearing a padded helmet back in the 90’s and he was picked on for it. I wonder what they could design 20 year later that would work better. I do disagree that making the field a little wider would hurt the game that much but I also would like to keep the game “pure” as far as the field is concerned, I just do not see another way as making the helmets able to take more impact might just push these guys to target the head more. IMO A yard and a half on each side would really help but I just do not know how you gain real data on the idea. (i.e. where do you test it, (Canada, College, Over seas somewhere, start a Mexican league, computer models?) Maybe you have the answer, “forcing torso hits only”, but they have tried that with limited results, (did he target, did he lead with his head, did the guy turn on him etc.). I just wish the NFL would do more than just throw a flag at a real problem for the players. I do hate seeing some of my hero’s later in life so beat up they can not even walk.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 4, 2016 at 11:29 PM

          I guess I don’t completely understand the logic for how widening the field would significantly cut down on head injuries. The only ways I can think of that it would, would significantly change the game. The hits are the hits regardless of field size. But expanding the field would create more space for the defense to cover and for the offense to exploit. So it would decrease hits because offensive players could avoid the defense more. I assume I’m missing a core concept from the argument.

          As far as the helmets, they exist. I’ll dig up a report NFL network did on them a few years ago. And players are even allowed to wear them. I know Peyton Manning wore one. But I’m pretty sure the player has to buy it, and I know they’re not mandatory. Part of the philosophy for the helmet is it’s made of Kevlar, a material that absorbs kinetic energy. The problem, it probably weights 3-4 pounds more than a normal football helmet. That may not sound like much, but I spent a lot of time on patrol in Kevlar helmets with the Marines. You get used to it, but we got to a spot in Afghanistan where we were allowed to go out in soft covers (hats). The next time we went out with the Kevlar it was noticeably more cumbersome. I felt slower and got tired faster. So I can understand why the young guys looking for contract wouldn’t voluntarily wear them. The NFL has to make it mandatory. Then it’s an even playing field.

          ANd yes, there’s a danger of them having too much confidence in the helmet and leading with it. You’ll never eliminate that secondary impact of the brain hitting the skull. So they have to continue to make rules about not using your head. There’s a method called rugby tackling that the Seahawks use, it’s just as effective but it takes the head out of it. That needs to be the standard league wide.

          Also, with the helmet to helmet penalties they created an incentive for a receiver to lower his head into a tackler and cause the helmet to helmet. Because the defender always gets called. That needs to be reviewable. If the defender set his angle to hit a guy in the chest, then the guy lowers his helmet, it needs to be a personal foul with a fine and possible ejection or suspension after a couple. I know people hate the idea of a heavy handed penalty, but it’s meant simply to be a deterrent. Not something that actually gets used.

  8. bangkokben - Aug 4, 2016 at 4:30 PM

    What would be significant deviation from the norm? Hopkins kicked 65% for touchbacks but how many did he try to kick for touchbacks? 65%? 80%? 95%? Who knows. The point is we have to guess about the other 35%. Rich is taking the position that touchbacks were a 2 out 3 success rate and considering from where the team was coming from with Forbath and the coverage woes, it is safe to assume. However, I am certain that some of those kickoffs were from the 20 yard line due to unsportsman like penalties after scoring. That may account for one or two and perhaps more were moved back for something else. We don’t know.

    What we do know. Hopkins kicked off 80 times. Once out of bounds, 52 were touchbacks, three were onside kicks without a return, and 25 were returned including an onside kick. So of the 24 returns, how many were intended to be kick returns? We remember some of those kicks being returned from the middle of the endzone but we don’t know if they were suppose to be TBs or returns. (The same would go for TBs that weren’t returned in the front of the end zone.) The average return was 19.7 yards. Let’s arbitrarily and conservatively say that half or 12 of the kicks were intended for returns. If that is the case 12 of 76 (subtracting the onside kick) would be less than 16%.

    So again, what would then be a significant change for the Redskins? 30%? 35%?

    Sure coaches are notorious for taking the safe approach but why? The chances of conceding a kick return for a TD is about the same as looking both ways and getting hit by a car when you have a “DON’T WALK” sign. Sure, you might trip on your shoelace just as an oncoming car accelerates instead of slowing down but the chances are slim. Last year there were 7 TD returned on kick offs — out of over 1060 returns. That’s less than 1%! There are teams that don’t take chances and teams that do (maybe because they have to.) Indy and Baltimore both had less than 10 returns for the entire season. Pittsburgh and the Giants allowed over 50.

    I hope the Redskins take their chances and try to pin their opponents back. It may backfire once but the field position battle is key in the NFL. Wining the coin toss and spotting the ball at the 25 and following that up with a first down which stalls on your 42 tilts the field in YOUR favor after a successful punt. With twenty yards of offense the opposition may be playing under the shadow of their goal posts all day. Seems like this rule may have been instituted by the “run the ball and play good defense” crowd. Seeing these new realities, it would behoove teams that kick off the game to try to pin teams inside their twenty.

    • Trey Gregory - Aug 4, 2016 at 4:50 PM

      I too think it’s a good idea to try and pin the other team back. I completely understand Rich’s point but you can’t deny that the NFL just gave the kicking team more of an incentive away from kicking into the end zone.

      The entire purpose of the rule rested on the premise that those 5 yards are significant. That, before, teams thought it was worth it to return kicks that reached the end zone. But now, with those extra 5 yards, the temptation would be too great and they would take a knee. Thus eliminating kick returns without eliminating the possibility of an onside kick. A group of current coaches say in a room and decided those 5 yards are significant enough to change their peer’s strategy.

      But they failed to see how the 5 yards is also significant to the kicking team. And how they just gave that much more incentive to not kick a touchback. The 20 yard touchback was just tolerable enough to make most teams want to kick,l a touchback and take a knee for a touchback. But they may have crossed that threshold.

      A kicker who could routinely deliver the ball around the 5 yard line would give his team a great advantage. Assuming the cover unit could routinely limit the returns to 15 yards or less. And those high kicks give the coverage unit more time to get downfield. To make the play. While you risk a return, you also create an opportunity for muffs and fumbles on your opponent’s side of the field. It wasn’t worth the risk before. But with those extra 5 yards….. well, the competition committee thought they were significant enough to change coaches behavior.

      • bangkokben - Aug 4, 2016 at 8:04 PM

        100% agree. Except I’d modify this: “A kicker who could routinely deliver the ball around the 5 yard line would give his team a great advantage. Assuming the cover unit could routinely limit the returns to 15 yards or less.” Should be 20 yards or less now. I’d think any NFL special teams coach would feel that they could consistently hold a returner under 20 yards but what they couldn’t guarantee was that the kick would get to the goal line. Now that they have five extra yards of cushion this will give them more options. The Redskins opponents averaged 19.7 yards per return against Hopkins but that probably doesn’t account for the two to five yards of end zone the returner may have been coming from. Bottom line, groove the kick-off so that lands between the one and two and we’re in business.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 4, 2016 at 11:36 PM

          Yup I agree with all of that. I just meant 15 or less to have a GREAT advantage over other teams. 20 is still an advantage, just not as much.

          And you’re right, the risk just wasn’t worth it before. But now it’s more intreaguing. But it’s all defendant on the player’s abilities. Teams won’t do this if the kicker can’t consistently hit the right spot or if they have porous coverage units. But those who have the tools should do it.

          So a lot of teams will probably kick into the end zone. But I guarantee we’ll see some teams try the pooch. And it could take a year or two for the ST coaches to get comfortable with it or find the proper kickers. So maybe we don’t see a huge difference in 2016. But the good coaches will eventually figure out a way to get an edge from this. which, ironically, would create more returns and more situations for the big hits the NFL is trying to avoid. Archives

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