By John Boyle Herald Writer
To add to his impressive career total of seven kickoff return touchdowns, Washington may well have to break that record.
Thanks to a rule change made in the offseason, kickoffs move from the 30-yard line to the 35. That change was made in an effort to make the game safer by increasing the number of touchbacks — kickoffs are one of the most violent plays in the sport — but by doing so the league took away one of the most valuable weapons in the Seahawks’ arsenal. For a team like San Diego that was a disaster on special teams, the new rule probably is a welcome change. But for teams that thrive in the return game like Seattle, Chicago and Cleveland, it neutralizes one of their biggest advantages.
“That was very upsetting,” Washington said of the change. “You think about teams like Chicago, Cleveland, us, we use that other third of the game to win games. We won games last year by special teams.”
Indeed the Seahawks did win with special teams. Last year’s victory over San Diego, which featured two Washington return touchdowns in the second half, is the most obvious example, but plenty of other victories were aided by the field position battles the Seahawks won with not only returns, but also with their strong kick-coverage units (Seattle ranked fifth in the league in opponent field position to start drives).
When asked on a conference call about what stands out about this week’s opponent, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh first mentioned the dangerous return abilities of Washington, not any aspect of Seattle’s offense or defense.
Now those advantages will be less pronounced as more kicks go deep into the end zone, or even out of play all together. Last season, kicks from the 30 went for touchbacks roughly 17 percent of the time. This preseason, 38.5 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Over the course of the regular season last year, only one kicker, Baltimore’s Billy Cundiff, had more than half of his kicks go for touchbacks. This preseason, 17 of 42 kickers managed a touchback rate of 50 percent or better.
“It’s going to get them what they wanted to get done,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “I think that this is really an intention to lessen returns, and that’s going to happen. I don’t really see it any different than that. I think the kicker’s going to be able to kick it deep enough and we’re going to find out that if you keep bringing it out from five, six yards deep in the end zone, you’re going to wind up inside the 20 and guys aren’t going to go for that any longer.”
But even if there are less kicks returned this season, Washington still plans on making an impact.
“The only thing I can focus on is my opportunities,” said Washington, whose seven kick return TDs are the second most in NFL history. “Obviously the opportunities might not be as many, but you will have opportunities. Our approach is that, when we do get them, we have to take advantage of them. They might be few and far between, but you’ve got to be ready when they do come.”
One thing that will help ease the impact of the new rule is that, in addition to moving the kickoffs up, the league also changed where kick coverage teams can line up. In the past, players could get a 10-yard run-up on the kickoff. That has been shortened to five yards, meaning players are moving slower when the ball is kicked. As teams adjust, Washington said you’ll see more returners bring the ball out of the end zone.
“We’ve been doing studies based on last year to this year, how fast guys are moving,” Washington said. “Guys are not moving as fast. With a 10-yard start, a guy will be faster vs. when you have to be at that five-yard-line.”
It seems clear the new rules hurt the Seahawks more than they help, but that doesn’t mean Washington won’t get his chances to thrill a crowd. He might just have to run a little farther than 101 yards this time around.
“If you think you have a good matchup that week, why not take a chance?” special-teams coach Brian Schneider said. “With Leon back there, I think we’re going to take some chances.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog.