This NFL season has been unsettling — literally. Through Week 13, 12 teams were on pace to win or lose at least four more games this year than last, making for huge swings in the standings and huge questions about the future. The gap in scoring differentials among NFL squads isn’t as tight as in 2016, thanks largely to breakouts by the Eagles and Rams. But as the league churns, there must be two dozen teams whose performances heading into 2018 are utterly unpredictable. Not even Philly or LA, whose teams have enjoyed relatively good health and soft schedules this season, can offer guarantees.
Of course, there’s one great exception to this Brownian motion. While you’re keeping track of tiebreakers or draft slots as you wrap holiday gifts, the Patriots will, as always, sit atop the AFC East, readying for another Super Bowl run. That’s thanks not just to the greatness of Tom Brady but to dozens of adjustments that Bill Belichick’s crew somehow keeps making better than any other franchise in the league. To illustrate, I want to zero in on how New England executes one play that you might not even notice but that consistently gives the Patriots an edge: kickoffs.
Because kickoffs are dangerous for players, the NFL has been trying for years to reduce their importance. In 2016, the league moved the starting field position for touchbacks from the 20-yard line up to the 25, the idea being that more returners would take a knee for 5 extra yards. The percentage of kickoffs returned has dropped since but by just a few points — which might have happened anyway, given how placekickers keep getting stronger. More interesting, the new rule gave smart teams a chance to game the system by intentionally kicking short, then smothering returns before returners reach the 25.
Last year’s opening weekend showed the range of possibilities. The Colts took the traditionalist route: Up one with 37 seconds left against Detroit, Chuck Pagano, not wanting to risk a long return, ordered Pat McAfee to boot the ball out of the end zone for a touchback. Three completions and 25 seconds later, the Lions were at the Colts’ 25 and kicked a field goal to win it.
Meanwhile, Stephen Gostkowski’s first four kickoffs of the 2016 season for the Patriots went into Arizona’s end zone. But when the game was late and close, Gostkowski kicked to the 5-yard line and to the 3. After a 14-yard return and a holding penalty, the Cardinals’ final drive started on their 8, and they missed a potential game-winning 47-yard field goal. Kicking off to just short of the end zone meant no touchback, and denying Arizona those extra yards proved critical.
Now yesterday’s experiment has become today’s strategy. Gostkowski has just 31 touchbacks, or 41.3 percent of his 75 kickoffs, down from 55.9 percent last season and 69.7 percent in 2015, making him the only kicker in the NFL to reduce his rate by 10 or more points in each of the past two years. How purposeful are Belichick & Co.? In Denver in Week 10, Gostkowski had just one touchback in eight kickoffs; the following week, facing the Raiders and Cordarrelle Patterson, he had six in seven.
Kicking short wouldn’t be too valuable if Gostkowski were shanking randomly. But when he kicks to opponents’ 4- to 6-yard lines, they end up returning the ball, on average, only to their own 21.4. When he boots it to their 1 to 3, returners merely make it to the 23, on average. And then there are the kicks Gostkowski places just deep enough to dangle as bait. On 16 occasions, opponents have run back his kickoffs from 3 yards or less inside their own end zones. On average, they barely reach the 20.
Gostkowski induces foes into doomed returns, and the Patriots’ coverage teams blanket them; Gostkowski hasn’t had a kickoff returned for a touchdown since 2010. Result: New England is the only team to rank in the top three in the NFL in average field position of opponents after kickoffs in each of the past two seasons.
That’s not too sexy. It’s easier to understand the appeal of a return-proof boomer like the Rams’ Greg Zuerlein (touchbacks on 81.5 percent of kickoffs). But a moment will come in this year’s playoffs when fans of the Titans, say, or the Chargers will wonder why facing New England feels like running uphill. You’ll know why: The Patriots make you work harder even after they score. Yards are yards, and they all add up.