By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The idea that Bill Belichick “doesn’t give the media anything” or “doesn’t answer questions” is largely a myth. Just because he didn’t answer your question or give information about what you wanted to know about doesn’t mean he gives everyone at his press conferences the same snorting, grumbling dismissals.
While Belichick does often limit how much he opens the door for reporters, ask him a straight-up football question with no lightning rods or pretenses of controversy attached to it and he will kick that door off its hinges and send it hurtling into the darkness of the Gillette Stadium hallways.
Monday’s Question of the Day goes to the reporter who asked Belichick during his Monday conference call about the NFL’s new rules regarding touchbacks. Under new rules, teams now start drives at the 25-yard line rather than the 20 when they take touchbacks. The changes were an attempt to reduce kickoff returns – which have caused major collisions and serious injuries in the past – but Belichick has subverted them by having his kickers kick the ball short of the end zone and forcing teams to return kicks and punts. It has paid off handsomely in the first three games of the season for the 3-0 Patriots, who have routinely pinned opponents back behind the 25-yard line.
Belichick was asked if any “statistical analysis” has shown that teams have markedly more trouble starting on the 20 rather than the 25 and whether it influenced the Patriots’ return game strategy, and he replied, “I think that’s part of it. Yeah, I do.” That was the start of another lengthy, thorough examination of the finer points of the return game and his approach to it. Here’s a screenshot of the full, 629-word response, but let’s go over some of the more interesting snippets.
An NFL employee since the mid-’70s, Belichick hearkened back to his early days as an assistant and how different special teams were compared to today.
Not to digress, but when I came into the league on special teams you had six phases. Every phase was very competitive, so field goal protection, field goal rush, kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return – now that’s really down to just two phases; punt and punt return. Field goals – it’s very hard to block a field goal because of the rules. You can’t hit the center, you can’t jump, you can’t overload, you can’t do much of anything. You just have to make a great play to somehow split the coverage or have a bad kick or both to really affect that play. It’s not impossible but it’s hard, so field goal protection isn’t what it used to be and the field goal rush has really been taken out of the game.
Belichick used that as a preamble to describing how special teams in the NFL has essentially boiled down to punts and punt returns and how the new touchback rules have had the opposite effect of their intentions, bringing kick returns back into the game more than in previous seasons.
“We’ll see how it all plays out, but in looking at a few other games it looks like there are a lot of teams that are doing some of the directional, corner-type kicking with good hang time,” said Belichick. “Just kind of popping the ball up in the air and making teams bring it out, which isn’t surprising. That’s exactly what happened with the college rule.”
The Patriots are not the only team to strategize this way on punts and kickoffs, but no team has done it with as much aplomb. The kicking and punting game played a major role in the Patriots’ 27-0 win last Thursday against the Texans. Punter Ryan Allen pinned the Texans back behind their own 25-yard line on all seven punts, six times behind the 15. The Texans also fumbled on two kick returns, both of which gave the Patriots the ball inside the 25 and turned into touchdowns.
Belichick subtly referred to the NCAA’s 2012 rule change moving kickoffs to the 35-yard-line and touchbacks to the 25, which has since seen an increase in returns. A follow-up question referred to the NFL’s 2011 rule change moving kickoffs to the 35, to which Belichick offered an insightful epilogue to his latest Great American Novel:
“…I mean I know it’s only five yards and five yards is five yards, but it just seems like it’s a lot easier for teams to just touchback and put the ball on the 20, whereas now there’s just a little more incentive to make them return it to the 25 as opposed to just handing them the ball on the 25-yard line. And I think there are really a lot of teams where if the ball is a yard or two yards deep in the end zone, they’re pretty content to just touchback it and take it on the 25. I think that extra five yards has enticed the return teams to do that more.”
Belichick may not be the most charismatic coach when it comes to his press conferences. He may not always give you the quote or information you’re looking for. But ask him the right football question and he can open his mind in ways that the uninitiated would never fathom. If you’re interested in X’s and O’s and the details of how a football mind like Belichick operates, responses like these can be fascinating – and maybe teach you a thing or two.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.