With returners 'devalued,' coach predicts 50 percent touchbacks

Chicago Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub has had some time to let the NFL’s new rules for kickoffs sink in.

He spent a week in Belize on vacation last week with family and, needless to say, pondered the move of kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line. He mulled over the rule that will prevent coverage teams from getting a sprinting start (players must now line up within five yards of the line to kick). And he thought about how the changes will add up to impact the game as we know it in the 2011 season.

“You’re hurting the teams that are good in the return game and you are rewarding teams that aren’t very good in kickoff coverage,” Toub said. “With just the rule change, they got better on kickoff coverage. To me, it’s not real fair. That’s the way it is. We’ll play it out.”

The Bears have traditionally ranked among the best special teams units in the NFL since Toub came on board in 2004 as an original member of Lovie Smith’s staff. They have the NFL’s all-time leader in combined return touchdowns in Devin Hester, although he’s been more prolific with punt returns than kickoffs. Hester returned only 12 kickoffs in 2010 but he averaged 35.6 yards and figures to be more prominently involved if the team loses Danieal Manning in free agency.

"We’ve invested in a lot of money in Devin and our return game and players and they’ve basically devalued that for us," Toub said. "I don’t think there is any question.”

No one can be certain how much touchbacks will increase with the new rules, but no one debates there will be more. There were 416 touchbacks in the NFL in 2010 (up from 208 in 2004) and Toub has a bold prediction.

“I think it is going to be almost 50 percent touchbacks,” he said. “I really believe it. For us, in the winter time, we’ll still get our returns, we’ll still get the ball when it gets cold. We’ll catch it right around the goal line or inside the 10.”

The question is who will be hurt the most? Like Toub said, good return teams are going to be more challenged. The Baltimore Ravens can’t like the change. Billy Cundiff tied an NFL record with 40 touchbacks last season. While he can build on that figure, kickers with weaker legs will have an easier time padding their numbers as well. The Ravens were No. 2 in the NFL with an opponent average starting field position of the 23.7-yard line. Cundiff’s touchbacks were a big part of that edge.

The Jets with Brad Smith, the Bears, Seattle with Leon Washington and Minnesota with Percy Harvin all ranked at the top of starting field position rankings. Elite return men will not mean as much under the new rules. Here are how the best return units and worst coverage units stacked up in 2010:

Top-10 starting field position

New York Jets 31.5
Chicago 31.5
Seattle 30.2
Minnesota 30.0
New England 30.0
Pittsburgh 28.6
Tennessee 28.4
Arizona 27.9
Cincinnati 27.7
Cleveland 27.6

Bottom-10 opponent starting field position

Minnesota 30.8
Green Bay 29.8
Cincinnati 29.7
San Francisco 29.1
Buffalo 28.5
Chicago 28.5
San Diego 28.2
Miami 28.0
Pittsburgh 28.0
Kansas City 27.9

"Now we have to adjust to what we think we’re going to get," Toub said. "You kind of rack your brain a little bit. How is it going to change your formation a little bit? How are you going to move back a little bit? Where are you going to set your wedge? What are your rules going to be as far as how deep will you come out with it? All of those different things you have to think about.

"What will the kickers’ mentality be? I think they’re going to try to drive the ball a little bit more. The danger of trying to drive the ball when you’re kicking from the 30 is that if you miss-hit it, you get a line-drive shot at the goal line. That’s very returnable. Now, with the extra five yards, you have a line-drive shot that will go five yards deep (into the end zone).

"So kickers will take more of a chance for kicking touchbacks. That is why I think there are going to be a lot more touchbacks than what people believe.”

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

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