SANTA CLARA – The NFL attempted to legislate the kickoff return out of the game. As it turns out, the rule to place touchbacks at the 25-yard line has prompted the opposite reaction.
The rule has provided 49ers veteran kicker Phil Dawson with more opportunities to be used on kickoffs after one full season in which punter Bradley Pinion handled those chores.
“I don’t know this was the intended consequence of the rule change,” Dawson said. “Even the commissioner (Roger Goodell) said they’re going to revisit the rule change once they get enough data. If they’d talked to special teams coaches, I think they would’ve gotten a pretty clear indication this might have happened.”
Kickoffs were moved up from the 30-yard line to the 35 for the 2011 season. Receiving teams often returned kickoffs deep in the end zone to attempt to run it out past the 20-yard line.
But once the NFL passed a rule that placed a touchback at the 25-yard line, the dynamic changed.
“Once you make that the 25, what the decision-makers failed to consider is, yes, you’re giving the return team incentive to take a knee, but now you’re giving the kickoff team incentive to not kick it in the end zone because now you think you can make a tackle inside the 25,” said Dawson, 41, an 18-year professional.
Instead of instructing strong-legged Pinion to blast the ball through the back of the end zone, 49ers first-year special-teams coach Derius Swinton has decided to use Dawson’s accuracy and hang time on kickoffs to the coverage team’s advantage.
“Hopefully, we can keep them guessing what we’re doing,” Dawson said. “Sometimes hit it deep. Sometimes hit it short. Sometimes hit it wide. Kickoff return is so much timing and spacing. If you can confuse both, you’re going to help your coverage unit and the average starting position is a big factor.”
Pinion handled the 49ers’ five kickoffs in the first game of the season. The Los Angeles Rams’ average starting spot was the 25-yard line. Dawson took over for the next two games.
Of Dawson’s six kickoffs against Carolina, four were not returned past the 25, including a play in which Ted Ginn muffed the kick and the 49ers recorded at the Panthers’ 2-yard line. Last week, the Seahawks’ average starting point was the 29. There were even two times in which Dawson was instructed to kick it deep for the touchback. He succeeded both times.
“The kickoff is a very misunderstood play in football,” Dawson said. “Some of the strategy is starting to come out. You’re starting to see how teams feel about situations and how they use personnel. Even Baltimore is hitting them short with Justin Tucker, who has led the league in touchbacks.
“Obviously, there is some risk when you give them an opportunity to return it, but if you can make a play, that’s why we’re here.”
Dawson said he and Pinion remain ready to execute whatever fits best with the 49ers' game plan for special teams in each game. They will either aim to blast the ball out of the end zone with Pinion or try to stop the opposition on kickoffs short of the 25-yard line with Dawson’s high, directional kickoffs.
The strategy could change week-to-week or even within the game, Dawson said.