by Michael David Smith
The kicker places the ball on the tee, then takes a few steps back. The returner waits patiently at the goal line, poised to grab the ball and take off running at full speed.
Those are the two images you see before a kickoff when you're watching a football game on TV. But what about the other 20 players? What role do they play?
Sadly, you could watch football on TV for a long time without finding out. So in two articles this summer, Football Outsiders will examine what happens on the kickoffs, with a special emphasis on some of the aspects that are often overlooked. Today we'll focus on the return team, examining the responsibilities of the front-line blockers, the middle blockers (commonly referred to as the wedge) and the return man.
The Front Line
If onside kicks didn't exist, the kickoff return as drawn up on a chalkboard would look pretty much like an offensive running play, with five blockers up front blocking straight ahead. But because of onside kicks, kickoff return units typically include five blockers lined up around the 42-yard line whose first responsibility is to make sure the kicking team doesn't try a surprise onside kick. If there is an onside kick rolling on the ground, the front-line players simply need to get to the ball and fall on it. If there is a short and high onside kick, the players on the front line are advised to call for a fair catch. Fair catches rarely happen on kickoffs, but they're necessary in the case of a short and high kick because players on the front five aren't accustomed to handling the ball, meaning there's a high likelihood they'll drop it. A front five player isn't likely to gain many yards advancing the ball anyway, so the risk of a fumble isn't worth the potential reward of a return.
But onside kicks make up only a small percentage of the plays that the front line players need to prepare for. Most of the job of the front line players involves getting into position to block, which means sprinting 20 yards downfield as soon as the ball is kicked, then turning around and identifying someone to block. For simplicity's sake, we'll label the five players on the front line as if they're offensive linemen: left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, right tackle. Those five players know before the ball is kicked who they're going to block. Most kickoff return units label the players they're blocking using the letter R or L and a number from 1 to 5. So the first player lined up to the right of the kicker is R1, while the player lined up three spots to the left of the kicker is L3. As the front five players are running down the field and getting into position, they know they'll have to turn around and immediately find five players to block. On a return up the middle, the left tackle would block L2, the left guard would block L1, the center would block R1, the right guard would block R2, and the right tackle would block R3.
The most important skill for a member of the front five is the ability to block in a wide-open area. Running downfield and getting into position to block a player who is running full speed toward you is a much different skill than blocking a player directly across the line of scrimmage. And getting into position in a hurry is important because illegal blocks typically come when the blocker doesn't get into position to block head-on. If a member of the front five gets passed by the player he's supposed to block, it's tempting to give a little shove in the back, but it's not worth the risk of penalty. The rule of thumb for front line players is that if you can see the name on the back of the jersey, raise your hands to show the officials that you're not illegally blocking the player in the back.
The front line players need to be good blockers, but they're rarely offensive linemen because they have to be fast enough to get into position before the opposing coverage team gets downfield. The front line players also need to be able to block a moving target. The one thing that makes the blocking scheme on kickoff returns easy is that return units don't bother with blocking the kicker, reasoning that a decent return man should be able to leave a kicker in his dust.
The players behind the front line are like lead-blocking fullbacks. They're known as the "wedge" because in many blocking schemes they line up in a wedge-shaped cluster to lead the return man up the middle. Unlike the front five players, the wedge players know the area they're supposed to block, but not the player. They get into position in front of the returner and block whoever gets through â€“ against some coverage teams that align their wedge busters on the sidelines, the first players through might be L5 and R5, but it's also possible that two players on the front line will miss their blocks, requiring the wedge to block L1 and R2.
The league's best special teams coach, Bobby April of the Buffalo Bills, has an interesting philosophy when it comes to the wedge: He delegates the coaching of the wedge to the team's offensive line coach, reasoning that the blocking the wedge players give Terrence McGee is essentially the same as the blocking the offensive line gives Willis McGahee. McGee is a good return man, but the blocking in front of him is a frequently overlooked reason for his success.
When Eddie Drummond of the Lions averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns in 2004, he credited Detroit fullback Cory Schlesinger's lead blocking in the wedge as the most important aspect of the Lions' return game. In 2005, when Schlesinger broke his leg in the preseason and wasn't available for special teams duty, Drummond's return average dropped to 22.0 yards.
The term "wedge" goes back to the very early days of American football, when an offensive formation known as the "flying wedge" involved offensive blockers lining up before the snap in a V shape, linking their arms, and running toward the defense at full speed. The play caused a lot of injuries, which is why rules were instituted to force at least seven offensive players to line up on the line of scrimmage, and to prevent blockers from linking arms while blocking.
A good return man has to have speed, of course, but good hands, good vision and an ability to change directions quickly are even more important. That need for good change-of-direction ability is why kickoff returners are usually small. The league's top 10 kickoff returners last season averaged 204 pounds.
The best pure kickoff returner in football is Jerome Mathis of the Houston Texans, a 5-foot-11, 172-pound wide receiver who went from Division I-AA Hampton in 2004 to averaging 28.6 yards a return in 2005. Mathis was a college track star, but there are a lot of college track stars in the NFL. His field vision sets him apart from the rest. Mathis will miss the beginning of the 2006 season with a stress fracture in his foot, which is a serious blow to the Texans.
In a revealing moment on the HBO series "Hard Knocks," which followed the Dallas Cowboys through the 2002 preseason, special teams coach Joe Avezzano watched an undrafted rookie return a kick, turned to head coach Dave Campo and said, "He's got speed, but he's got no feel for it." That "feel" is really about vision. Some players with the speed of a sprinter just run straight into someone on the coverage unit. Mathis and other top returners can see the running lanes open ahead of them and run into the open spaces.
A good example of a player who lacks that feel is Mathis's Houston teammate, Vernand Morency. Unlike Mathis, Morency just runs straight ahead, often directly into the opposing coverage team. That's why he averaged only 21.9 yards a return despite running behind the same blockers Mathis had.
In football, there are no individual achievements, but when a kickoff is returned for a touchdown, it's almost invariably described as an achievement by the return man himself. Even if a kickoff return is shown on multiple replays, television analysts usually treat the returner's 10 teammates as afterthoughts. Maybe that's because television makes the blocking on kickoffs look disorganized. It's anything but.
(Looking for more strategy minicamps? They are archived here. Last year's articles included zone coverage vs. man coverage, defensive line gap basics, and the I-formation.)