Many happy returns? Dolphins embrace new kickoff rules

DAVIE, Fla. -- The scoreboard read 20.9 miles per hour, but Jakeem Grant was mad because he knows he’s faster than that. He swears he was running three-quarter speed.

It was Grant’s first career kickoff return for a touchdown. Titans returner Darius Jennings countered with a kickoff touchdown of his own a little later in the fourth quarter.

The Titans-Dolphins game in Week 1 was the first in a decade with a kickoff-return touchdown for both teams. Last season, there wasn’t a kickoff-return touchdown until Week 6.

Well, what changed? The NFL introduced a new set of kickoff rules to make the play safer and slower and create a better chance for a big play. So far, so good.

“It shows you at any time there can be a big home-run return, especially with the new kickoff-return rules. They aren’t getting down there as fast. You can see the hole much clearer. To be honest, I love it,” Grant said. “I get the perfect time to see everything, see the blocks develop, know which hole I got to hit before I hit them. It can be big plays after big plays after big plays on kickoff return.”

For at least one day, the kickoff was back. It was fun and safe again, exactly how the NFL wants it -- if the play is going to stick around. There is talk of eliminating kickoff returns at all levels of football as the full-speed collisions make the play among the most dangerous.

What if the return of the return is not just for one day? What if, as multiple Dolphins players and coaches think, it is back for the long haul? They believe this is the start of a trend.

“I really believe in my heart that over the course of the year, you’ll see the touchback percentage go down a little bit; you’ll see more returns,” Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi said. “It’s a safer play and a more wide-open play.”

There are a lot of details that go into the NFL’s new kickoff rule -- an attempt to keep kickoff returns alive and relevant.

The new rule eliminates the running start for those on the kickoff team. It eliminates wedge blocking, which allows multiple players on the receiving team to link together and deliver a block. It also eliminates hitting within the first 15 yards, among other changes.

“It changes up your technique a little bit. It’s a minor adjustment. The non-touch zone is the biggest thing,” Dolphins special-teams captain Walt Aikens said. “People not coming down as fast. They not up on you right when you turn around. It’s a much safer play now for sure.”

Rizzi said it puts more of an onus on the coverage team to win individual battles. The rule significantly favors the return team and therefore creates more touchdowns.

Longtime Patriots special-teams ace Brandon Bolden, now with the Dolphins, said timing is more important. One mistimed angle could lead to a speedster like Grant or Jennings getting the edge.

“It cuts down the distance a little bit. Sometimes it creates different angles,” Jennings said. “Instead of two guys to beat, you might just have one guy.”

Rizzi adds: “There’s more spacing on the play. … You have to be able to tackle in the open field a little bit better. There’s not those wedge-blockers. Some people liken it to a punt return. I guess you could say that a little bit, but I just look at it as a much more wide-open kick-return play.”

Speed and vision are now more important for a returner than ever. Grant went untouched on his touchdown. Jennings was barely touched.

One other strategy element that has become a bigger factor is the decision to boot it deep for a touchback or kicking it on the goal line to force a return.

In recent years, many coaches chose kicking it to the goal line. A great coverage play could pin an offense inside the 15-yard line, a big win compared to the 25-yard line with a touchback.

Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders said there has been a lot of back-and-forth on whether the new rule will change that.

“It’s hard to tell what the right thing to do is right now,” Sanders said. “A lot of teams are going to kick it to the goal line and make them return it, but we’ll see what happens. Touchdowns change that.”

There were seven kickoff-return touchdowns in the NFL in 2017 and in 2016. It’s a small sample size, but there were those two in Week 1, along with a punt-return TD.

It’s early, but the kickoff return could be back. And if it also proves to be safe, it could save the play and add more intrigue to NFL special teams.