Earlier this year, the NFL passed a new rule that would bring a fair catch on a kickoff out to the 25-yard line — even if it was caught somewhere behind that line.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ special teams coordinator Dave Toub was not a fan of the new rule — and initially said his team would still prefer to return kickoffs.
“If we’re up in a game, for instance,” said Toub in early June, “and we don’t want to take a shot on goal because they kick the ball to us — and it might be better for the team just to fair-catch it and take it out the 25 — we’ll do it. But it’s not something that we’re going to do a lot.
“We’re going to be aggressive.”
Now that he’s had the time to reflect on it, however, Toub may have altered his position slightly.
“I think there’s gonna be more fair catches on those high kicks, for sure,” he predicted of the coming season while speaking to reporters following Wednesday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.
But then Toub acknowledged one argument that’s been advanced since the rule change: if the ball travels past the 25, a fair catch is the obvious choice for the receiving team — which Toub called the “analytics game.” Toub, however, wanted to remind his listeners that there’s still an element of risk in making that choice.
“If you want to help your team,” he said, “[and] get them out to the 25 automatically, you still have to make the fair catch — and you have to block everybody up. I mean, they’re going to be coming down the field — and be coming hard.
“If we bobble it — I mean, you’re taking a chance there.”
So in Toub’s mind, giving his kickoff team time to get downfield is a good approach.
“The best thing to do,” he said, “is take a high kick down to the goal line so you can create hang time to let your guys get down the field to be able to cover. So that’s why we did it. We’ll do that during the season as well — rather than just [kick a touchback].”
Toub figures there’s no point in making the play easy for the receiving team.
“You know, [Harrison] Butker can bang a touchback pretty much any time he wants,” Toub said, reminding his listeners of something he’s often bragged about. “But now you want to try to make them make a play — at least — if they want to get the ball at the 25. [So] we’ll kick it high.”
But what if his team finds itself in a situation where it needs to force the opposing team into making a return? Toub had figured that out before the new rule had even been passed.
“We told them what teams are going to do,” he recalled. “‘There’s going to be more squib [kicks].’ If you want to force a team to return the ball, you have to squib it.”
He’s referring to kickoffs that deliberately bounce along the ground — therefore eliminating the possibility of a fair catch. The New Orleans Saints tried one of these against Kansas City during Sunday’s preseason opener.
“We didn’t handle it great,” admitted Toub. “No. 82 back there [wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette] kind of didn’t pick it up cleanly.”
But otherwise, Toub was fairly happy with what he saw on Sunday.
“Everybody played. That was the thing — I mean, that’s one of the important things in that first game: Coach wants everybody to play. So you see a lot of bodies; we had four different teams going every time. Everybody [played], so we were happy with that.
“The effort was excellent; I thought the guys played extremely hard.”
Toub made a point to specifically compliment the play of three rookies — cornerback Nic Jones, safety Anthony Cook and linebacker Cam Jones — but also made it clear that he wasn’t happy with everyone’s performance.
“I just think our ‘ones,’ you know, they came out a little bit sluggish,” he said — and then he clarified his statement. “I’m talking about my ‘ones,’ as well. We need to have a better showing this week.”
The Chiefs are on the road against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night. Unlike many observers, Toub isn’t particularly worried about playing on the field where Butker sustained an ankle injury in 2022’s season opener — one that caused the placekicker significant problems until late in the season.
“I think there’s so much talk — and so much focus on the field,” observed Toub, “[that] I’m pretty sure they’re going to have [the field] in pretty good shape. They’ve been playing on it — and I haven’t heard anything negative, really.”
We’ll assume that Toub’s judgment is shared by the rest of the coaching (and equipment) staff — but we’ll also assume that just in case, the equipment folks will be packing every set of cleats the team owns.