FLORHAM PARK: Jets coordinator Bobby April has been around the game of football for quite some time. At just about every level, too.
Like most of his players, April's coaching career followed a similar path to their playing ones. He began at the high school level, moved up to college and eventually, in 1991, the NFL. He's seen a lot, witnessed a lot, and experienced even more. He's also watched a lot change.
And few areas of the special teams game he advises have been revamped as much as the kick return.
"If the goal is to eliminate that play," April said, "(The NFL) is getting pretty close to reaching it."
On Thursday, April spoke about how when he first entered the NFL, the ball was kicked-off at the 30 yard line. That year, there were "between 17 and 19" touchbacks, which, according to April, upset the NFL. "The league said way, way too many touchbacks," April recalled with a smile. "Way, way too many."
But now 25 years later, the stance on the play has completely changed. Teams now kickoff from the 35, and as a result, the touchback number has increased astronomically. There are, each and every Sunday, less and less kicks returned.
The goal of the league is to decrease kick returns in an attempt to also decrease injuries. While few things excite fans more than a return touchdown, the risk/reward of the injuries suffered from two players colliding after 30 yards of building up speed just isn't worth it. Have the changes been working? According to studies, yes. The concussion totals pre-kickoff rule change, compared to after, show a decrease in the total number of injuries.
The issue? Less kickoff returns means less of a value of kickoff returners. In the past, teams would use a roster spot on a player whose job was simply to return kicks. Now, it just doesn't make sense to use a spot (not only on the 53-man roster, but also the 46-man game-day roster) on a player who will only touch the ball maybe twice a game. That returner who used to only return kicks, now needs to be able to do more.
Otherwise? Well, he just doesn't have enough value to warrant a roster spot.
"I don't know how you couldn't look at it (that way)," April said. "There are just so many touchbacks."
While the Jets have had players on their roster in the past who specialized in returning kicks (most recently guys like T.J. Graham and Walt Powell), the team has elected to part ways with them. The reasoning? They simply don't have enough dual value. Instead of using a roster spot on a guy like Graham or Powell, the team instead elected to put a player like Chris Owusu back deep.
No, Owusu wasn't as good of a returner as Graham or Powell, but what he could do was also play receiver. When Owusu got hurt, the team threw Zac Stacy back to return kicks. Again, Stacy wasn't anywhere near the returner that Graham or Powell were, or countless others on the free-agent market, but Stacy had dual-value as a running back.
The game has changed, specifically when it comes to the return game. And as a result, teams are thinking of the 'kick returner' position differently.
There's no value in a one-trick special teams pony anymore. If you can't play offense or defense, in addition to returning kicks, odds are, you're not going to get the job.
"I think the organization thinks of the play different, and I think the organization thinks of the player that does it different," April said. "It's only natural."