To fair-catch or not to fair-catch?

For Rashid Shaheed, that will be the question this season after the NFL changed one of its rules in late May. Under the new rule, players can signal for a fair catch on kickoffs, and the ball will automatically be placed at the 25-yard line.

So essentially, a fair catch on a kickoff now has the same result as a touchback.

“It’s an interesting rule,” said Shaheed, who averaged 23.9 yards per kickoff return as a rookie last season. “I don’t think it will affect things much.”

The NFL hopes Shaheed is wrong. The league implemented the rule on a one-year trial basis with the hopes that it will help with player safety, because so many concussions occur on kickoffs.

Most of those concussions aren't to the returner, but to the other players on the field colliding at full speed. The NFL’s rationale is that more fair catches will lead to fewer returns, and thus fewer of those high-impact collisions and fewer concussions. 

Saints special teams coach Darren Rizzi isn't sure if the league will get the results it wants. 

“I think the rule will show up in situations at the end of the game,” Rizzi said. “But in regular situations, I just don’t know how many fair catches you will see."

Let’s take a look at the Saints’ kickoff return numbers from last season.

The Saints received 81 kickoffs last season. (That doesn’t include one onside kick attempt by the Los Angeles Rams.)

Of the 81 kickoffs, 54 were touchbacks. 

Here's the breakdown of the remaining 27 kickoffs.

The Saints returned 10 of the kickoffs that went into the end zone. Five of those were returned past the 25-yard line. The average starting field position on those 10 kickoffs was just shy of the 25-yard line (24.3).

The Saints had decisions to make on those, and for the most part, they made good decisions on bringing those kicks out of the end zone that could have been touchbacks anyway.

With the new rule, they will now have another decision to make. Should they fair-catch the kickoff caught in that no-man's land, somewhere between the goal line and the 7-yard line? Or should they take a chance on returning it?

Last season, the Saints returned 13 kickoffs between the goal line and the 7-yard line. Five of those made it to at least the 25-yard line. The average field position on those returns was just shy of the 25 (23.7).

The other four kickoff returns were received at the 12, 9, 18 and 10-yard line. All four of those were returned to at least the 25-yard line, making them no-brainers to return. 

While automatically getting the ball at the 25-yard line is beneficial, there is also a drawback to the fair catch.

If you muff the kick, the ball is spotted at that spot and you don’t get to advance it to the 25.

The Saints muffed two kickoffs last season. Dwayne Washington muffed a kickoff at the 4-yard line last season in Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers, and Deonte Harty did the same thing at the 2-yard line against Seattle two weeks later. Washington picked up the ball and ended up returning it to the 25. Harty picked up his miscue and got to the 11. If they had tried to fair-catch those kicks and muffed, there wouldn’t have been a chance to gain more yards.

Examples like that are why Rizzi isn't so sure the fair catch rule will work. 

“I don’t know how many guys are going to fair-catch the ball because of the risk-reward,” Rizzi said. “We are going to have the confidence that if they kick us the ball, we are going to be able to advance the ball and not take the risk of dropping it. So I really don’t know how many fair catches you’re truly going to see. I think most coaches are going to play it like that. They don’t want to risk dropping the ball and having the offense backed up and at risk like that.”

Younger players like Shaheed are accustomed to the new rule. College football adopted the rule in 2018, Shaheed's sophomore season at Weber State.

Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said in an interview with the NFL Network that the league expects the kickoff return rate to decrease from 38% to 31%. The league expects the concussion rate to decrease by 15%. If that happens, it will be a win for a league trying to get a handle on a safety issue that has been a black eye.  

But Rizzi says using the numbers from college football as a guide for what the NFL should expect is comparing apples to oranges.

“The NFL plays totally different,” Rizzi said. “You’ve got teams like Alabama and Georgia, and they don’t fair-catch because they have good returners. The numbers are skewed. If LSU is playing against Nicholls, well, Nicholls is going to fair-catch every time and get the ball at the 25. LSU is going to return it every time. But because of the parity in the NFL, I don’t know how many teams you are going to see fair-catching.”

On the kickoff coverage team, Rizzi expects to see a slight change in strategy toward the end of games. In the past, when the receiving team put their “hands” team on the field, kickers would often try to pop up the ball toward the goal line. Because teams can now fair-catch those kicks and get the ball at the 25, Rizzi expects kickers to use a different strategy.

“So now all these kickoffs in those situations are going to have more tools in the toolbox, with the squibs and knuckleballs and corner kicks,” Rizzi said. “As far as regular situations, once we play some games and see the teams that are going to be the ‘fair catch’ teams, I think those teams are going to see more of the knuckleballs and squibs and line drives to make them play.”

Count Saints special teams ace J.T. Gray, a two-time All Pro selection, among players who aren’t a big fan of the new rule.

“It’s taking away some of the play of the game,” Gray said. “You have some coaches who are aggressive, and this may make them less aggressive. So this year we will see how much of a difference it will make.”

Rizzi isn’t sure it will make much of a difference. But he understands why the league is at least giving it a try.

“The league felt they needed to at least see if it helps with player safety,” Rizzi said. “I don’t think you will find a lot of coaches and players in favor of it. We just didn’t see the proof that this was going to lead to less head injuries.

“We have to do a better job across the league in taking the head out of the game, in terms of the tackling. Talking to coaches throughout the league, I just don’t know how many will risk making a fair catch and dropping the ball. I’m not a big fan, but it’s going to be really interesting to see at the end of the year what the results are going to be.”

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