Bears training camp 2018: Team ready to make history with new kickoff rule
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BOURBONNAIS — It will look more like an oddity than a piece of history. But when the Hall of Fame Game kicks off Thursday, the Bears — and Ravens — will do something no other NFL team has done in a game: test the league’s new kickoff protocol.
Gone is the running start for the kicking team, and five players must line up on either side of the ball — at least two players must line up outside the yard-line numbers and at least two players must line up between the yard-line numbers and the hash marks. The return team has a 15-yard “no-blocking” zone directly in front of the kickoff team. Wedge blocks are now illegal. A kick that hits the ground in the end zone will be ruled a touchback.
The changes were made to reduce the speed of the play — and, the NFL hopes, the head injuries that come with the most dangerous action in the sport. The league found that concussions were five times more likely on kickoffs.
What the play will look like is still mostly an unknown, even to players who have studied it and put it in action during training-camp practices. Full-speed contact is so rare in practice, though, that special teams are best learned during game action.
Sherrick McManis, the Bears’ special-teams captain last year, didn’t have any insight about how the kickoff would look.
“No idea,” he said Tuesday. “But it’s definitely going to be something I’m going to keep my eye on and see how that comes out. I think it’s going to be more similar to a punt because the kickoff team no longer has a running start.”
Running back Tarik Cohen, who returned punts and kicks for the Bears last year, thinks the two will feel more similar than ever.
“It’ll be like a punt,” he said. “It’ll be something new. We’ll be the first people doing it, even if everyone is doing it in practice.”
When the NFL made its annual rule-change video, it left out the kick-return details because they were still in flux. Some finer points were still being evaluated last week, when the NFL sent officials to Olivet Nazarene University to meet with the Bears.
“I have a sense for it,” special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor said. “Do I think it will be like a punt? In some ways. There are going to be a lot more single blocks, and it’s going to put stress on those guys. But I also think that some of the kickoff-return principles from the past also will be the same.
“I’m excited to see it because you really have no idea what return schemes you’ll see. Us and the Ravens will be the first ones to kind of start piecing it together.”
And then they’ll start hiding it. Teams typically keep special teams vanilla during the preseason, saving anything exotic for when games actually count.
Tabor knows he needs to walk the fine line between giving away strategy and finding out how his players play within the confines of the new rules.
“I gotta get guys evaluated,” he said.