MINNEAPOLIS -- At the conclusion of the NFL owners meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, last month, an executive approached Minnesota Vikings special-teams coach Mike Priefer to ask him what he thought of the league's new rule bringing touchbacks out to the 25-yard line. Rather than bemoan the change, Priefer said, he told the executive he planned to embrace it -- knowing the alternative would have been far worse.
"I'm glad the league is keeping it in; it's a safer play than most people realize," Priefer said. "Everybody wants to say, 'Oh my God, it's a big, high-collision play.' But there are no more wedges; you don’t have guys blowing up the wedge like they used to. Coaches have done a great job of coaching this play differently. Guys aren’t getting hurt like they used to. The league needs to keep the play in the game. If they want to tweak the rules, that’s fine, but it's not as dangerous as people think."
For most teams that face the Vikings, the danger might lie more in what Cordarrelle Patterson can do with a football than whether injuries will happen on the play. Patterson led the league in return average and average drive starting position following a return for the second time in three years, according to ESPN Stats and Information research, again becoming the only return man in the NFL to take two kicks back for touchdowns in 2015. And Patterson's approach showed how willing the Vikings were to bypass a safe 20 yards in pursuit of a big play: His average kick return started 2.1 yards deep in the end zone.
According to ESPN Stats and Information research, the Vikings had the league's lowest percentage of touchbacks on kick returns, with just 35.1 percent of opponents' kickoffs ending without a return. That's due in large part to the freedom the Vikings have given Patterson to be aggressive, and even with five additional yards of incentive for Patterson to take a knee, it's hard for Priefer to imagine putting a restrictor plate on the league's top kick returner.
"We put him at nine [yards] deep and tell him, 'Bring out everything you can catch square and get going,'" Priefer said. "We’re going to bring it out. We’re going to take the good with the bad. That might change depending on the team you play -- if you’re playing Denver, who has a phenomenal defense, you might take it at the 25. It will be a weekly deal. But I’m an aggressive coach by nature, and Coach [Mike] Zimmer’s an aggressive coach."
Rather, the change in the Vikings' approach could come on their own kickoffs, in which Priefer said kicker Blair Walsh will have to expand his "bag of tricks" during the lead-up to the 2016 season. Walsh's big leg was a weapon for the Vikings in 2012 and 2013, when 58 percent of his kickoffs led to touchbacks in the climate-controlled Metrodome. The Vikings will be back indoors this fall after two years at TCF Bank Stadium, but the rule change has Priefer wondering if the Vikings can steal a few yards from time to time, with higher kicks and a coverage team that should get a boost with the addition of players like linebacker Travis Lewis.
"There's a psychological part of it," Priefer said. "If you kick it to the 5, and they return it to the 22, you win. That’s three yards [you saved over a touchback]. Is it worth giving them a big play when you do kick it high and short? There is that opportunity. But if you stop them, now they’re losing six, seven yards. That’s a big deal, even the psychological part if it's only 1 yard, that fires up the defense. Now the offensive coordinator is looking at it differently.
"I've heard people say, 'It’s one of the most exciting plays in the game.' I've heard naysayers say, 'Let’s take it out.' That’s not football. That’s like the Pro Bowl to me; it’s a joke. [The kickoff is] a much safer play than it used to be."
When Patterson gets his chances, it's also one of the Vikings' best opportunities to change a game. Priefer anticipates teams will continue to try and blast the ball out of the end zone, content to give the Vikings the ball at the 25 rather than allowing Patterson a chance at a big play. Many of the kickoffs that don't exit the end zone, though, will probably still be coming out.
"Some teams are going to try to line-drive them [to get them out of the end zone]. If you get a line drive with 3.5 [seconds of] hang time, let's bring it out," Priefer said. "If it's a high kick with 4.4 hang time, maybe we down it. Cordarrelle has been doing this long enough now; he knows the difference. ... The more opportunities you give him, the better chance you have of getting a big play."