Sunday, September 11, 2011

Patriots 2011 Kicking/Coaching: Little Change

Changes to the kicking game mostly revolve around new kickoff rules, whereas coaching changes are virtually non-existent.

Significant Arrivals: long snapper Danny Aiken

Significant Departures: receiver Brandon Tate

1. Ruling Authority

In order to protect players from injury, the NFL made two significant changes to the kickoff: (1) teams kickoff from the 35 instead of the 30; and (2) players on the kicking team can't get more than a five-yard running start on the play, so they can't line up any further back than the 30 yard-line.

The rule immediately resulted in more touch backs, and reduced the value of good kickoff returners. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski's kicks went deep into the end zone, and even though the Giants returned all four in their game, their average starting position on those drives was inside the 15 yard line. Gostkowski got touch backs when kicking from the 30 yard line, so expect a lot more of them this season.

The second result of the changes was Tate being cut. He never distinguished himself as a receiver, so when this rule reduced his impact as a returner, he became expendable.

2. Three-man Operation

The Patriots are on their third long-snapper in two seasons, which is a little strange because they've had good luck there over the years. Jake Ingram was rock solid in 2009, but got the "yips" halfway through 2010 and was replaced by Matt Katula. Then Katula nailed every snap for the rest of the year, but he was cut and replaced by new snapper Aiken.

Through it all, Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko continue unphased by the changes around them. Gostkowski is the most accurate kicker in team history, and Mesko was very good on punts and is also the holder on field goals, and he handled that role flawlessly last year.

3. Promotion Earned?

Perhaps the biggest coaching change was the official coronation of Bill O'Brien as the offensive coordinator. But the promotion makes one wonder what he did to earn it.

Sure, the Patriots offense topped the league in points scored last year. But in the playoffs, when the games count for so much more, O'Brien failed to adjust his scheme until too late in the game, continuing to throw against a defense designed to stop the pass.

The Patriots did not promote O'Brien in 2010, perhaps thinking he didn't have the experience or hadn't shown them enough to merit the title. The playoff loss to the Jets did nothing to increase his stature in my mind; so I'm not sure why the Patriots decided to give him a title he might not have earned at this point.

4. Summary

Not much to see here folks. Unless you like the touch back, you won't like the new kickoff rules, but if it reduces the number of spinal cord injuries then it's a good thing. The new snapper did well in the preseason, so no big change there. And we won't know if offensive coordinator O'Brien has improved until/unless he shows the ability to adjust quickly to schemes that catch him off-guard -- especially in the playoffs.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  Still 0-0!

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