ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Indianapolis Colts were the best team in the NFL at forcing touchbacks last season, with veteran Pat McAfee pinning opponents to the 20-yard line on 90.5 percent of his kickoffs.
But if the Colts’ first preseason game Saturday against the Buffalo Bills was any indication, the team is certainly willing to abandon that strategy and experiment with different tactics to take advantage of the NFL’s new touchback rule, which puts the ball on the 25-yard line instead of the 20 this season.
The rule change was supposed to be for safety, since an inordinate amount of injuries occur on kickoffs. But while giving receiving teams five extra yards gives them more incentive to take the touchback, it also seems to have encouraged kicking teams to try to force a return in an attempt to prevent giving away free yardage.
Kicking teams are trying to accomplish this with higher, shorter kicks referred to as “mortars,” just like the battlefield weapon that can launch bombs at high trajectories. The Colts tried them several times in Saturday’s 19-18 win against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium, dropping kicks on the 3, 5, and 4-yard lines, as well one 3 yards into the end zone.
All four were returned, with none getting past the 25-yard line.
“I think we’d be silly not to” experiment with it, Colts coach Chuck Pagano said earlier this week. “We’ve been working both [deep kicks and high kicks]. We’ve been kicking mortars and certainly I think everybody else is going to do the same thing, especially in the preseason.”
McAfee, who’s also the Colts’ punter, was recovering from a knee injury and only handled punts in the first half Saturday while Michael Palardy took all the kickoffs. But asked for his thoughts on kicking short, McAfee seemed to change his tune from March, when he was highly against the new strategy.
Only a 1% better chance of scoring from 25 than from 20.. From a strategy point.. Imma bat a 1000 on touchbacks this year #ColtsNation— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) March 23, 2016
Saturday sounded different.
“It seems to be going well,” he said. “Any time you stop a team inside the 25, that’d be considered an advantage. … I don’t think you saw a return go past the 25 without a penalty.
So I think it was good. You’re definitely going to see guys try to take an advantage of it, but who knows how it will play out when it gets to the regular season.”
McAfee was then asked if he still wants to bat 1.000 on touchbacks this season.
“Well, I don’t know, actually,” McAfee said.
“Good luck with that,” kicker Adam Vinatieri chimed in from the next locker over.
“I think it’s been working for teams,” McAfee continued. “Like tonight, we got them inside the 20, and you’re seeing a lot of special teams coaches who don’t want to just forfeit the 25-yard line, and you got to appreciate and respect the competitive drive. I think I might’ve been wrong on that. But who knows what’s going to happen by the time the regular season[starts]. We have a lot of games left still. Everybody watches everybody else, too. Until the season comes around we have no idea.”
Palardy, who was brought in after McAfee tweaked his knee, said shorter kicks were “absolutely” a point of emphasis.
“That was what was asked of me, to kind of put a little bit more placement on it,” he said. “A little higher, a little short and see if we can get them inside the 25-yard line because an extra five yards is another five percent of the field that we would give the offense.
“So yeah, we’re basically trying to get it inside the 25, maybe the 20, with a good hang time, fair distance, and not too deep because if it goes too deep, they’ll just take a knee.”
Teams will of course be scouting each other all preseason and may come up with better tactics to return mortars. But even for a team as good at kicking deep as the Colts, any potential advantage is worth looking into.
Palardy said it’s too soon to know if the mortar is here to stay, and noted that some teams may not want to tip their hand before the regular season. But the numbers, he said, are there.
“I don’t really think it’s fair to put a judgment on it and say ‘Yeah, it’s going to work’ or
‘Yeah, it’s not going to work.’ But, from a pure statistical standpoint and a field position standpoint,” he said, “it makes sense to do that.”