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Offseason | 2024

Mick Shots: Putting some pizzaz into kickoffs

Mick-Shots--Putting-some-pizzaz-into-kickoffs-hero

FRISCO, Texas – Hip-hip-hooray.

The NFL kickoff witch is dead.

Yep, one of the most boring, insignificant, least impactful plays in the 60 minutes of an NFL game since the league rightfully implemented rules to reduce injuries caused by this somewhat barbaric way to start a game, a half or play after a score has been, uh, kicked to the curb.

And that loudest cheer you heard on Tuesday when the NFL owners overwhelmingly approved this change was coming from one backflipping KaVontae Turpin. The Cowboys return specialist will now have an increased opportunity to ply his special ability to return kicks in the final year of his initial three-year NFL contract.

Touchbacks are a thing of the past. In fact, will be penalized if executed.

Think about what the NFL game had become. Like 93-some-thousand people are all revved up for the start of, say, the Cowboys-Eagles game at AT&T Stadium, the outcome having a huge impact on the NFC East title race. All are standing, waving those white towels placed on each seat. The players are jacked up on the field, heaving their hands upward to further incite themselves and the crowd. The anticipation of this game-opening ritual had the place whipped into a frenzy.

Brandon Aubrey approaches the ball at the 35-yard line, and, well whip-de-do, kicks the ball through the end zone as instructed for one of his NFL-leading 99 kickoff touchbacks in 2023. Talk about Deflate Gate.

Might as well have stuck a pin in an excitement balloon. Play halted. Ball is placed on the 25-yard line. Saw that happen more than 90 percent of the time in 2023. Now play ball.

No more. At least for this 2024 trial season for the new-look NFL.

If you are not familiar with this change, just call up an XFL kickoff from this past season. Or tune into the start of the UFL 2024 season on Saturday or Easter Sunday to check out the kickoffs in the opening of the new league having been combined from the XFL and USFL.

More intrigue.

So for a simplified explanation, the kicker still puts the ball in play from his 35-yard line. But the 10 coverage guys line up at the return team's 40 and can't move until the ball is either caught or lands between the 20 and goal line. Nine guys on the return team will line up no closer than five yards of the coverage team, between the 30 and 35. Can't move either. Only the kicker.

For safety purposes, this will decrease physical impact with no one having a running start and will give the returner a chance to run with the ball. Sort of almost like a play from scrimmage. In the XFL's 2023 season, 94 percent of kickoffs were returned.

Kicks short of the landing zone's 20 will be penalized as if kicking the ball out of bounds. Balls still come out to the 40. Kicks landing in the end zone will come out to the 30 instead of the 25. Accuracy is emphasized.

Why, in two USFL seasons Turpin, with kickoffs starting at the 20, returned 31 kickoffs in 20 regular season games for a 26.7-yard average. In his two seasons with the Cowboys under those antiquated kickoff rules, he only was able to return 31 in 34 regular-season NFL games with a low of 10 this past season, teams purposedly minimizing his return threat with touchbacks.

Well, now this. Can't wait. Let's go.

  • Kick Ball: Now, it was one thing last year when unconsidered rookie Brandon Aubrey became a Pro Bowl kicker for the Cowboys in just his third season of actually kicking a football competitively and his first time in the NFL after two USFL seasons. Was another thing Aubrey went 10 of 10 from 50-plus yards, with longs of 58, 59 and 60. But guarantee you Aubrey's ability to manipulate kicks from his soccer-playing days will be even more important with these new kickoff rules. Being able to control the ball, like landing between the 20 and goal line will be a fine art. Also, guarantee you special teams coach John Fassel will have Aubrey working on not only placing his kicks within the landing zone, but also directionally kicking, like trying to place his kicks between the numbers and sideline, too, to make for easier coverage. Kickers will become as important as return guys under these new rules. Heck, the kicker's ability to control the ball might be even more valuable since once a returner breaks the only line of defense, it's clear sailing for like 70 yards unless the kicker is going to make a tackle in the open field.
  • Ha, One Year: Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy constantly is being asked about coaching on the final year of his five-year contract and his assistants being now on one-year deals. Well, welcome to most of our worlds. Wonder how many of the media members asking these questions have multiple-year contracts. Man, working for newspapers during my career, we basically were day-to-day, right? Now that sure was motivating pressure to be your best every day, no lollygagging around.
  • Wide Gap: So many continue insisting the Cowboys just need to sign wide receiver CeeDee Lamb to an extension to reduce the impact of his $17.99 million fifth-year option cap hit to create more cap space. But it takes two to tango. And guarantee you his representatives do not want to make a move before Minnesota's Justin Jefferson, facing the same fifth-year option, signs his and probably vice-versa. There has been reports suggesting Jefferson already has turned down a deal averaging $30 million a year. For sure, neither side wants to set the market value and then the other guy exceeds it with his deal. It's a complicated game of cat and mouse, and even more so when the raw numbers suggest Tyreek Hill's deal with Miami averages $30 million a year. For sure, the Cowboys realize Lamb's market value will be more than $20-$25 million a year, but the fine print on Hill's contract reveals his realistically is three-years with $75 million in guarantees, since $45 million is stuffed into the final season of 2026. Just know there are 16 receivers averaging more than $20 million in total packages, and Lamb is coming off a Cowboys' franchise record-setting season, breaking marks held by three of their Hall of Fame receivers. Stay tuned.
  • Words to Win By: When McCarthy was talking at this week's NFL meetings, and hinted at his philosophy of winning, the Super Bowl-winning head coach in Green Bay said, "The defense always should have the ability to keep you in the game. The offense needs to go win the game, and I think that is critical in playoff football." So we can assume the defense giving up 40 points to the Packers in that 48-32 first-round loss did not fit into his assessment.
  • Shouldering Up: Key during Mike's 40-minute interview segment at the NFC coaches breakfast Tuesday was revealing Mazi Smith and Luke Schoonmaker are recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries. Mazi played through his shoulder problem, which could have affected playing only those four snaps in the playoff loss to Green Bay. Both are expected to be ready for the start of training camp. What the Cowboys do or don't do in the draft or free agency might say something about the trust they have in last year's first-round draft choice to make a significant second-year jump.
  • Shorties: Speaking of one-year contracts, that the Cowboys seem comfortable having Dak Prescott play this season on the final year of his deal could have some renegotiating undertones since it does take two to tango on these extensions … And while the running back room is short on experience and proven talent, McCarthy made it clear that adding an experienced back and a draft choice should be expected, which is an excellent idea on both counts … While expecting DeMarvion Overshown to return from his ACL repair in time for training camp to somewhat restock the linebacker position, almost forgot how impressed the Cowboys were with rookie free-agent tight end John Stephens until he also suffered a season-ending ACL tear in training camp. He's expected to be ready for training camp as well to add an interesting hand in that room …Evidently, the Cowboys were hoping to re-sign defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins for the veteran exception to save cap space since the Seahawks really didn't go overboard signing the veteran run-stopper to a one-year deal worth $1.96 million, with just a $300,000 signing bonus guaranteed. Or maybe they do trust Mazi … The Big 12 Conference Pro Day workout begins first thing Thursday out here at Ford Center, where conference members' draft-eligible players will run through drills like what the individual schools would normally do during their individual Pro Days on campus … And don't ask why Texas held their Pro Day workouts last week because, uh, they are now in the SEC.

Thought this from Mike McCarthy was an interesting look into what the veteran offensive-oriented coach thinks of quarterbacks these days, especially since the top-two picks in this year's draft could possibly be two highly mobile quarterbacks, the last two Heisman Trophy winners in USC's Caleb Williams and LSU's Jayden Daniels.

"You've got to be special to be able to win all day long from the pocket," McCarthy said, knowing these days pure pocket guys are a dying breed coming out of college. "I've always believed you have to be able to play in the pocket and out of the pocket."

Might have learned that from all those years in Green Bay with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.

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