Chiefs challenge opponents to return kickoffs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The NFL’s new touchback rule setting up offenses at the 25-yard line intends to reduce the number of kick returns, but Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub wants kicker Cairo Santos to do the exact opposite.

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos practices kickoffs before the team's preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks Aug. 13, 2016 in Kansas City, Mo. (Emily DeShazer/The Topeka Capital-Journal)
Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos practices kickoffs before the team’s preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks Aug. 13, 2016 in Kansas City, Mo. (Emily DeShazer/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

“No one wants to give up those 25 yards,” Toub said. “To me, that’s like giving up.”

The NFL hoped the new rule would incentive teams to take more touchbacks rather than try to return kickoffs as part of an effort to improve player safety. Kickoff returns are inherently dangerous, with players racing full speed down field toward each other and creating high-velocity impacts.

But the Chiefs and many other teams believe sacrificing five more yards makes it worth the risk to promote kick returns and put faith in their coverage teams to stop returns for shorter gains.

Encouraging a kick return on the coverage team’s terms requires finesse. The Chiefs aim to drop high kicks in a window from the 3-yard line to a yard deep in the end zone with a hang time of at least 4.2 seconds.

“It’s a skill to drop it in there, especially with a lot of hang time,” Santos said. “As soon as the rule was put in place, coach Toub called me and said, ‘High kicks to the goal line. Start practicing.’”

Through the first two games of the season, the Chiefs have generally lived up to Toub’s expectations. The team has allowed only one kick return beyond the 25-yard line. San Diego’s Craig Mager posted a return of 23 yards to the 27-yard line.

Toub chalks it up as a loss any time the opponent returns the ball past the 25-yard line.

“But anytime we get them inside the 25 or inside the 15, those are all wins and less chance you score,” Toub said.

The Chiefs have held the opponent to start inside the 25-yard line three times. The defense in turn forced two punts and an interception on those three drives.

Santos still puts the ball into the end zone when the situation calls for it. Five of his 10 deep kicks have gone for touchbacks. His last two kickoffs against San Diego actually played a role in the Chiefs come-from-behind victory.

“Cairo can kick touchbacks if I ask him to,” Toub said. “Like at the end of the game, the last two we wanted to kick touchbacks, save time and play defense at the 25.”

Santos only turned in one poor kickoff against San Diego. The game’s opening kickoff sailed five yards deep in the end zone. Toub chalked it up to adrenaline of the season opener.

“He tried to kick it as high as he could and it actually went a little bit deeper than we wanted it to,” Toub said.

Against the Texans, Santos misfired on an angled kick toward the sideline, sending it out of bounds at the 1-yard line and setting up Houston at their own 40-yard line. That led to field goal for the Texans.

Despite that kick, the Chiefs have given opponents an average starting position of the 24.8-yard line on deep kicks, or 23.1 without the kick out of bounds.

How teams manipulate the new touchback rule against the Chiefs appears mixed so far. The Chargers kicked off seven times in the season opener, sending each kick out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.

But the Chiefs returned all six kicks against Houston Sunday. Knile Davis and Tyreek Hill combined for an average return of 26.2 yards to the 25.8-yard line on the first five kickoffs.

The sixth kickoff nearly turned the game into another direction. Hill took the ball five yards deep in the end zone for a 105-yard touchdown return, only to see the play erased on a disputed holding call. The penalty put the ball at the Chiefs’ 12-yard line.

Toub expects teams to kick away from Davis and Hill most of the time.

“(Against the Chargers) we didn’t even get a sniff on a kickoff return because Knile’s back there,” Toub said.

The NFL said it plans to evaluate the rule after week four of the season. While reverting back to the old 20-yard line rule for touchbacks seems remote, Santos definitely prefers the 25-yard line rule.

“I really like it,” Santos said. “I just got to keep getting better to keep delivering good kicks.”