Matthew Slater thinks kickoff returns need to stay part of game

ByMike Reiss ESPN logo
Friday, June 3, 2016

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater, who has represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl each of the past five seasons, gave a passionate defense Thursday for keeping the kickoff return a prominent part of football.

A rule change for 2016 that gives teams the ball at the 25-yard line on a touchback has some speculating that the kickoff return is on the verge of extinction.

"I'm very disappointed, obviously, in the way we're discussing the future of the kickoff," Slater said at Gillette Stadium after the team's organized team activity on Thursday. "The kickoff is a big part of the history of the NFL and the history of football. For us to be sitting here talking about maybe doing away with the kickoff, it's very disappointing."

Slater, the Patriots' player representative, is the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, who played for the Rams from 1976 to 1994.

"I can think about days all the way back to watching my dad and thinking of returners like Ron Brown and people of that nature that made a career out of doing this," Slater said. "You think about Steve Tasker [who played most of his career with the Buffalo Bills] and his impact on the game of football, Bill Bates [of the Dallas Cowboys] -- the list goes on.

"The kicking game has meant a lot to the game of football and a lot of players individually and has enabled guys to have careers. You think about [longtime Miami Dolphin and New England Patriot] Larry Izzo, you think about myself. Without the kicking game, we don't have a career. I'm very disappointed with some of the things I hear in regards to getting rid of the kickoff. I surely hope that's not the case. I hope that's not the direction we're moving in, but we'll see."

Slater acknowledged that teams getting the ball at the 25 on a touchback doesn't ensure fewer kickoff returns. It could even lead to more returns because kickers might be more inclined to attempt high-arcing kickoffs that fall short of the goal line, giving the coverage team a chance to tackle the returner inside the 25.

"I don't know how we're going to approach it yet," Slater said. "Right now, we're just practicing our techniques the same way we would if it was last year. We'll see. I certainly think there is a possibility that a lot of coaches are not going to want to hand teams the ball on the 25-yard line."

Earlier this year, Oakland Raiders special-teams coach Brad Seely said of the new rule: "The average drive start in the NFL right now is around the 23.5. Statistically, you have a 4 percent greater chance to score a touchdown at the 25 versus the 20. So you're giving them a better chance to score a touchdown with a touchback."

On Thursday, Slater added: "Field position is big in the game of football. If you're just handing some of the great quarterbacks in this league an extra 5 yards, I think it certainly changes the game. I certainly don't want to give Tom Brady the ball on the 25-yard line. I'd rather him have it on the 20 if I'm playing against him or behind the 20. ...

"You're adding an additional 5 percent of the field to the offense. I don't feel like that's the best thing for the game. But I understand they're trying to do what's best in terms of health and safety, and I respect that. There's nothing more important than the health and safety of our players, but I do not think the kickoff is a hazard that we need to be thinking of getting rid of."