As the NFL's only kickoff specialist, Jordan Gay knows he was granted a rare opportunity to stick with the Buffalo Bills the past two seasons. Even after the Bills made a head-coaching change last January, from Doug Marrone to Rex Ryan, and briefly pushed Gay off their roster last October to experiment with other kickers, he remains in Buffalo in a one-of-a-kind role for the current NFL.
When owners last week approved a one-year change to the rulebook that moved the touchback for kickoffs from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line, it was ostensibly a blow to Gay's value for the Bills. After all, they've kept him around largely because his stronger leg has resulted in more touchbacks than place-kicker Dan Carpenter managed, and now there is more incentive for a receiving team to take a touchback when it can.
If only it was that simple.
In speaking to ESPN by phone this week, Gay explained that the varying circumstances and moving parts involved with kicking off in the NFL will likely result in a wide range of strategies by teams. It's no sure bet that touchbacks will increase, and in the Bills' case, it could mean trying to loft kicks inside the 25-yard line but outside the numbers on the field to give their strong coverage unit an advantage.
"It limits the opponent to just one-third of the field," he said. "It makes it easier on our coverage [unit] because they know where the ball is going to be. And if they know where the ball is gonna be, you can game plan more for it instead of using different coverage to try to pin them over in that corner. Based on the numbers last year, with our coverage, I feel like that could be, maybe, worth it."
Gay noted that the Bills allowed the fewest yards per opponent kickoff return last season -- just 17.2, on average -- and that their opponent's average starting position for a drive after a kickoff was 79.3 yards from the end zone, second to only the Bengals.
"I think if we can utilize our strengths in that category, we could have that edge in the kickoff with this rule change," he said.
The NFL's aim in changing the rule was to give teams an incentive to increase the number of touchbacks and thus decrease the number of returns, but how exactly special-teams coaches and specialists across the league adapt to the rule change is anyone's guess. Former NFL kicker Jay Feely believes that shorter, more lofted kicks will be used more often -- and thus kick returns will increase -- and current Panthers kicker Graham Gano, Titans kicker Ryan Succop and Broncos kicker Brandon McManus have all agreed in tweets or interviews over the past week.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Colts punter Pat McAfee, who handles kickoffs for Indianapolis, doesn't plan on deviating from his approach. A league-high 87 percent of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks last season, and he doesn't see the NFL moving the ball from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line on a touchback as making enough of a difference to cause him to risk having an opponent return a kick.
"I think it depends on where you play," Gay said. "McAfee is indoors. So he basically has perfect conditions half the season, at least. So for him, it's definitely worth just trying to get as many touchbacks as you can. Guys like McManus, Gano and here in Buffalo, where wind affects your game plan going into the game [it's different].
"Sometimes if the wind is in your face, I can hit it as hard as I want or whatever, it could just hang up there for four and a half seconds, and that actually gives our coverage team plenty of time to run down and make a play. You saw it a couple times last year where the wind might be in my face. I knew I couldn't get a touchback, so I would just hit it as hard as I could and get them as much as I can."
The misconception with Gay is that his value lies purely in his leg strength and his ability to boom the ball far enough to ensure a touchback. In fact, only 54.5 percent of Gay's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks last season -- that ranked 23rd in the NFL -- but ESPN's advanced metric, total expected points added (EPA), ranked him second in the NFL on kickoffs to Pro Bowler Stephen Gostkowski.
The nuances of kicking off in weather, to certain returners or in certain game situations are so complex that Gay compared the "mortar kick" -- a lofted kick to the 25-yard line with an ideal hang time of 4.2 seconds -- to one of many "clubs" in his golf bag. The practice course, in Gay's mind, will be the preseason -- and even then, his coach could continue to tinker with strategy throughout the season.
"I think everybody is going to be different," Bills special-teams coach Danny Crossman told WGR 550 on Wednesday. "There are so many moving parts. Who is your kicker and what can he do? Who is your kickoff coverage team made up [of]? Are you a good kickoff team? Are you an average kickoff team? ... How good is your defense? Who is your returner? Who are you going against on the coverage team and what advantage may you have? How good is your offense?"
Both Gay and Crossman noted that kicking the ball shorter does not necessarily guarantee a better hang time, and because of the associated risk of a big opponent return, it still might be ideal to kick the ball as far as possible. In that case, Gay should still have a role on the Bills.
Unless, of course, the Bills' front office decides to shake up the entire position by selecting a kicker in the draft next month. Adding top college kicker Roberto Aguayo, for instance, could spell the end of both Gay and Carpenter's tenures in Buffalo.