Rule has special significance
NFL puts a block on wedge in returns
The lights in the offices of special teams coaches across the NFL will be on a bit later at night than usual this offseason, because their jobs just became much more challenging.
When owners voted last week to eliminate a wedge on kickoff returns that includes more than two players, citing safety concerns, some called it a minor alteration. But it's far from that to special teams coaches, who now are forced to rewrite significant portions of their playbooks because of how prominent the wedge had become.
The wedge is a human wall, often including 300-pound linemen who line up closest to the returner and whose job it is to take on coverage players who have built up great velocity from surging down the field. They usually absorb the most violent hits on each return, and this will limit those collisions.
Teams like the Redskins and Giants figure to be most affected, as they regularly run powerful four-man wedges. A couple of teams occasionally run a five-man wedge.
"Most everybody runs a three or a four, and has for years," said Bills special teams coach Bobby April, whose units annually rank near the top of the NFL. "I told my wife, with these rules I just added a lot more work hours because we run that and we've run that for a long time and been successful with it. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of ingenuity to come up with a different offense, because basically a kickoff return is an offensive play.
"This might be too dramatic, but if we ran the wishbone and all of a sudden they said, 'You can't run the wishbone anymore,' that offensive staff is going to have to come up with something. We're on a smaller scale because certainly there are less kickoff returns, but all of us are going to have to come up with something different, because across the board almost everybody is affected by this."
First-year Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien concurred. Once he learns more about how officials plan to interpret all aspects of the rule, he'll head back to the drawing board.
"The wedge has been around as long as I can remember, where you utilized it or had to deal with it one way or another, so it's going to force everybody now to re-create their return schemes and have a different look on how to defend those returns," O'Brien said.
In search of improvements for the Cardinals' return game in 2009, special teams coach Kevin Spencer recently put together footage of the four-man wedges of the Redskins and Giants. Spencer had planned to adopt more of that style, but he's since changed course.
"I wanted to study it and was thinking that was maybe a way I should go from a teaching and repetition standpoint. Now I'll have to go look at other things," Spencer said. "At least we're not finding out in June and scrambling to get your playbook ready for July, when you have to teach the guys. Coaches are paid to coach and be creative, so we're doing what we're paid to do."
Although they will be breaking from tradition, April, O'Brien, and Spencer favor the change if it means player safety will be enhanced.
While some teams might still have a couple of bigger linemen leading the returner as part of a two-man wedge, all three coaches anticipate that kickoff return teams will now feature more players with a different body type. Thus, there is likely to be a trickle-down effect in how head coaches determine their 45-man game-day rosters - a backup lineman who might be in the wedge could turn out to be a luxury that is no longer feasible.
"Now you could be eliminating them," O'Brien said. "You could find a lot more smaller athletes on the field both ways because they're one-on-one and you have to be able to play in space. I think it will create a little more excitement that way in terms of the matchups we have on the field."
More teams figure to adopt what is often referred to as a "match" or "man" return, which April describes as "when you literally match up 10 against 10 and guys single block."
Former Patriots special teams coach Brad Seely was considered among his colleagues to be a master of coaching the "match" return when he was with the Panthers in the 1990s and had explosive returner Michael Bates. Seely, who joined the Browns this year, became more of a wedge coach in recent years in New England.
"But you might see that kind of matchup scheme come back into vogue," Spencer said. "You don't ever really get rid of stuff, it just sort of comes and goes, and that might be something you see come back. It will depend on each coach's philosophy and what type of personnel you have."
The change might appear subtle to the casual fan - and perhaps not noticed - but it's already a big topic among special teams coaches.
"I don't think the fans will be shortchanged, I think you'll still see some big returns," April said. "It's going to take some ingenuity and creativity to come up with different things for teams who strictly run that style of [wedge] attack, but I don't think it will take away from the excellence or the beauty of the kicking game."
Plan is a good sign for LionsThe Lions apparently are still deciding whom to select with the No. 1 overall pick in next month's draft, but they're taking a smart course of action with one important aspect of the process.
First-year coach Jim Schwartz indicated at last week's owners' meetings that the Lions plan to have a finalized contract - or at least an agreement in principle - in place with whomever they select.
Only the team with the top overall pick can negotiate with prospects before the draft.
While the overwhelming cost of the top pick now makes it more of a burden than a reward, Schwartz realizes that leverage is important for the Lions to seize, whether they're picking Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith, Virginia offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, or someone else.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, the Raiders botched that aspect of holding the No. 1 pick two years ago, which contributed to JaMarcus Russell's holdout.
"We saw how much that set back [Russell] a couple years ago," Schwartz said. "That's a tool we have in drafting No. 1. We need to take advantage of every advantage that we have."
Run-of-the-hill offseason for 49ersThe 49ers, coming off a 7-9 season, know they have an uphill climb this season. In more ways than one.
Among the changes Mike Singletary has made in his first year as permanent head coach is the creation of a steep hill adjacent from the team's practice field. Singletary plans to have his players work out on the hill when it's completed in a few weeks.
Singletary explained that he used to train on a hill in Houston with other NFL players such as Charlie Joiner, Darrell Green, and Earl Campbell.
"I was very fortunate to be part of that group," Singletary said. "It was a tough workout. All of those guys that worked out on that hill had a long career."
Singletary calls the hill "Pain."
What was before a small slope is now a hill with 2,500 tons of dirt. From top to bottom is 45-50 feet.
"To me, the hill has a mystery about it," Singletary said. "It's tough to really get the work you get on the hill anywhere else because of the endurance, the stamina, what it does for your hamstrings, your quads. It's tough to find anywhere else. Whether you go up forward, backward, sideways, you get a diverse kind of workout rather than just on the grass on a flat surface."
Players naturally had questions when they arrived at the practice field and saw the hill in the works.
"They're not excited about it," Singletary said. "They won't like it, but it'll be good for them."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com; Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.