FLAGSTAFF – LaRod Stephens-Howling just shook his head, thinking about the NFL’s new kickoff rules this season.
“I don’t like it at all,” the Cards’ top kickoff returner said.
That’s not a surprise. The rule to move kickoffs up, from the 30- to the 35-yard line figures to create more touchbacks and less opportunity for returns. For someone like Stephens-Howling – who averaged 27.2 yards a return last season, fourth in the NFL, with a couple of touchdowns – it could hamper his effectiveness.
It’s the rule though.
“It’s something you have to deal with and adjust to,” Stephens-Howling said. “I was surprised with how many returns were able to come out last game. We will see how it goes this season.”
The Cardinals were actually able to get six returns against Oakland (the Raiders had four) and there was only one total touchback. The Cards only got 21.3 yards a return, and Stephens-Howling had just 14 yards on his lone attempt.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he does expect fewer returns, but “there will still be opportunities.” In cold weather climates, Whisenhunt said, the ball has historically been around the five- or 10-yard line later in the season, so he figures that will put it near the goal line now.
He also said there is no set plan to change the return plan for Stephens-Howling or any other player. The “off” returner will be the man that needs to tell the guy with the ball whether he should come out or not. And no matter how deep, the Cards want to return low, line-drive kicks because the coverage won’t have gotten down the field.
“We will adjust our criteria for bringing it out a little bit, but I think it’ll be a little bit of an experimental thing,” Whisenhunt said.
Stephens-Howling believes that once kickers get used to the situation, “balls will be flying into the end zone.”
But he won’t be shy. “I’m not going to stand back there assuming the ball will be (too deep) in the end zone,” he said. “I’m always looking for a chance to bring it out.”
“We are still working with him running with his pads down a little bit, which is natural when you haven’t had a lot of contact,” Whisenhunt said. “But I have been very pleased with Beanie’s approach.”
“We are just trying to get Deuce into what we think is the best football shape for him to compete,” Whisenhunt said. “We said that when he first came in here. It’s a process of assessing as we go forward.”