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Raiders look for ways to exploit new kickoff rule

Raiders special teams coach Tom McMahon is back in the lab.

A new rule has teams scrambling to figure out how to approach kickoffs and returns, but the man who discovered a loophole last season that was quickly shut down by the NFL welcomes the challenge of how to best navigate this new opportunity.

“Anytime somebody writes a rule, there’s schemes in there that you can find and you can take advantage of,” McMahon said.

In what appears to be a way to start to phase kick returns out of the game, the league voted to allow teams to call for a fair catch anywhere in the field of play and have the ball placed at the 25-yard line.

On the surface, many analysts believe that to be enough of an incentive for coaches to tell their returners to do that. A fair catch wipes out the chance of a game-changing return, but it also eliminates the risk of a fumble on the runback or a holding call that pins the offense deep in its own end.

The average kick return in the NFL went for 22.8 yards last season, with kicks being fielded between the goal line and 2-yard line creating average starting field position inside the 25. That has essentially become the target zone for many kickers, including the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson on most occasions.

At one point last season, Carlson and McMahon figured out a way to lay the ball up against the tee and remain within the written rule. That configuration allowed Carlson to pop the ball up even higher and drop it in that zone near the corner and inside the 2-yard line, giving the coverage unit even longer to get to the returner.

The NFL shut down the plan after two games, but it was a clear example of innovation by perhaps the league’s best special teams room. It also showed exactly what teams were trying to do on kickoffs, but that sweet spot for kickers is now the exact place where return teams are likely to fair catch the ball and take it to the 25-yard line.

After this same rule was implemented in college football in 2018, the average number of returned kicks per game dropped from 3.1 to 2.6, and the average return yards per game dropped from 65.9 to 48.2.

The idea, in theory, is to cut down on the collisions that occur at a high-rate of speed on returns when coverage units have sprinted 50 yards before impact. It could just be a first step. Reports again resurfaced this week that the NFL will consider adopting the XFL kickoff rule that enacts a target zone for kickers and places coverage units and return teams 5 yards apart downfield.

But for at least one season, the expanded fair catch rule will be in effect.

Raiders receiver DeAndre Carter, who has returned kicks throughout his career and could be in the mix for the job this season, is interested to see how it works.

“They said kickoff returns are one of the most dangerous plays in the league, and they’re trying to (make it safer),” he said. “I don’t know necessarily how we are going to go about that this year. Hopefully we get to return them, that’s what I want to do, but we’ll see what Coach Tom and Coach (Josh) McDaniels want to do, and whatever they’re riding with, I’m OK with.”

McMahon said the three preseason games will be key to seeing how teams are going to treat the rule and how the Raiders will attack it.

“We need to do that in the preseason,” he said. “We need to see what this is going to do, and we need to try some of those things that we may do within that plan and see good ball, bad ball.”

The obvious answer is there will be a lot more squib kicks in which the ball bounces back to the returner, negating the chance for a fair catch. But that also presents challenges for the kicking team, which is why McMahon foresees some real creativity around the league to figure out the best approach.

“For example, if you’re the returner, you’re going to get it in 3.2 seconds versus sometimes 4.2 seconds,” he said. “So you don’t have enough time to cover when you start to squib the ball. So guys are going to get tricky. There’s some good coaches in this league. They’re going to put (the ball) all over the field and they’ll put spin on it … we’ve got to be ready for everything.”

Carlson, a first-team All Pro last season, believes the kickoff unit will find a way to succeed regardless of how their opponents react.

“If they decide to throw fair catches, there’s nothing we can do about that to a certain extent,” he said. “We’re going to control what we can and try to dominate in the areas that we can.”

McMahon will make sure his units have every chance to do that, but he knows it will require constant adjustment. He thinks time and score situations will impact many of the decisions.

“There’s going to be some different kicks,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing that we’re working on is there are going to be some weird kicks to try to force returns.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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