In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, something familiar was happening during a Pittsburgh Steelers training camp practice on the weekend. Danny Smith, the experienced coach, was back in his usual groove. He was being his usual self – loud, expressive, and enthusiastic. He was giving out commands and fixing things on the go, just like he always does.
However, even though Smith has been doing this job for a really long time – he’s starting his 29th season coaching special teams in the NFL – he knows that things are different this year.
As the special teams coordinator for the Steelers, he and his team are getting ready for a new NFL rule. This rule says that teams can now choose to make a “fair catch” inside the 25-yard line during kickoff returns. This means that the ball will automatically be placed at the 25-yard line.
Of course, the rule was put in place to make the game safer.
But, at the same time, it raises suspicions that this could be a step toward getting rid of kickoffs from the game completely.
“They keep changing the rules all the time,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports after practice. “You have to go along with the changes. We’ll see how useful that 25-yard line becomes. Sometimes, I think it’s good, and sometimes, I don’t.”
During the break between seasons, Smith joined forces with all the other special teams coaches in the NFL to try and stop this rule change. Even though they tried, they couldn’t win the fight against it, especially since Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL’s competition committee were in favour of it.
So now, they’re adapting. Smith understands that some people might want to ignore the rule and return every kickoff, but he knows that’s not really practical.
“I think it depends on the situation,” Smith explained. “Some people might say, ‘I’m going to return every single ball.’ But that’s not smart. It changes every week. How’s our returner doing? Are we blocking well? How does our team match up against theirs? How good are they at covering? Do I have my best returner out there? If we have a substitute player, that 25-yard line isn’t bad. We might as well make a fair catch and try again. If we’re winning 14-0 with only 2 minutes left, it’s better to catch the ball, start at the 25-yard line, and tell our offence, ‘Let’s finish this game.’ It all depends on the situation. I can’t say the same thing for every scenario.”
As the NFL’s first full preseason weekend approaches, Smith is hoping that he won’t have to deal with the fair-catch rule in action for a few more weeks. This might seem surprising, given that the rule was introduced to make the game safer by reducing injuries. However, Smith seems more concerned about the upcoming decisions about which players will be on the team. Since preseason games provide chances for teams to assess their players, he’s wishing for a delayed start to using the new rule.
The Steelers will start their preseason by playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night.
“In the preseason, I’m expecting us to return all the kicks and actively involve everyone, so we can figure out who’s performing well,” Smith explained. “Not all teams approach it this way. I don’t want to see us making fair catches, unless we don’t have anyone available to catch the ball, or we have someone there due to injuries. We need to return the ball to evaluate our players. I’m hoping other teams will do the same and not resort to fair-catching, so we can get accurate evaluations. But during the regular season, things change.”
In the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday, the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets followed Smith’s preseason strategy. Out of eight kickoffs, they didn’t make any fair catches. Four of the kicks resulted in touchbacks, and four were returned.
Does Smith believe that kickoffs might eventually be removed from the game?
“I don’t think so,” Smith responded. “I believe the older generation and the team owners want to keep it in the game, albeit in a modified form. It’s still a fundamental aspect of the game. It can’t be eliminated. However, I don’t think we’ll ever witness it in the same way we were used to.”
In May, team owners decided to introduce a fair-catch rule similar to the one used in college football. This new rule will be tested for one year. The reason behind this change is safety. Data from NFL injuries shows that kickoffs have more injuries compared to other plays. This risk grew as kickers got better at placing the ball close to the 5-yard line. By implementing this rule, the NFL believes that concussions from kickoffs will decrease by 15%.
However, Smith believes there’s another way to make kickoffs even safer: getting rid of double-team blocking.
“That’s where the issues are happening,” Smith explained, talking about concussions.
So, the discussion about kickoffs is far from settled.
Owners’ message to Dan Snyder
The message from the owners to Dan Snyder was clear when he completed the record-breaking sale of the Washington Commanders for $6.05 billion last month. Alongside this historic sale, Snyder was hit with a significant NFL-record fine of $60 million. This penalty, while massive, was primarily a response to the allegations of sexual harassment and a harmful workplace environment that occurred under Snyder’s leadership, rather than any financial wrongdoing.
The purpose behind such a hefty fine was not only to make a statement to the fans in Washington but also to educate potential new team owners about the league’s high standards. An NFL owner, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue, explained that they were firm about the fine’s severity to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Another owner, also speaking confidentially, revealed that Snyder had tried to argue that the fine could jeopardise the entire sale. However, this claim wasn’t widely believed. The owner stressed that Snyder’s threat of walking away from the deal wasn’t seen as credible. The owner chose to remain unnamed as they were not directly involved in the situation.
Meanwhile, Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, had a different perspective on the fine imposed on Dan Snyder. Jones saw the record-breaking sale price as the main reason for the hefty fine.
“The fine was based on the purchase price,” Jones explained to USA TODAY Sports. “In order to truly make an impact and serve as real punishment, it needed to be substantial.”
Jones doesn’t believe that Snyder purposely tried to deceive fellow team owners and manipulate shared revenues, as claimed by a former member of the Commanders’ front office. However, Jones understands that Snyder’s lack of cooperation with the NFL’s investigation, along with the workplace problems, made it clear that the league had to send a strong message through the fine.
In any case, most NFL owners appear relieved that the league has moved on from Snyder and the various controversies surrounding him.
As one owner phrased it, “Anything to remove the negative influence.”
Jones stated that he wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s happy Snyder is no longer in the league, but he emphasised, “What I am pleased about is that it’s better for the Washington fans and for the NFL.”