When the NFL moved the touchback to the 25-yard line, it hoped that it would encourage fewer kickoff returns. Not only is Patriots coach Bill Belichick buying into the league’s philosophy, but he says going the opposite route was a key to the Patriots winning on Sunday night.
Belichick says the Patriots were intentionally kicking the ball just short of the goal line to try to pin the Cardinals deep in their own territory, and he thinks that strategy may have been the difference between the Cardinals making and missing their game-winning field goal attempt.
“I know there was a lot of sentiment to eliminate that play, but those are the kinds of plays that are good strategy plays in football,” Belichick said.
The Patriots kicked off with 3:44 left in the game, leading 23-21. Belichick said kicker Stephen Gostkowski has a strong enough leg that he could have kicked it for a touchback, but instead he kicked it high and to the 3-yard line, giving the Patriots’ coverage team time to get down the field and tackle Cardinals return man Andre Ellington at the 17-yard line. The Cardinals also committed a holding penalty on the play, which moved the ball back to the Arizona 8-yard line. Belichick said that the Cardinals have a good team and the Patriots couldn’t afford to give them any extra yards, so he considered that kickoff a huge play.
“Certainly, we had an opportunity to kick it out of the end zone on the last kickoff, but with a good field goal kicker, a good offense, good quarterback, we try to put them on as long a field as we could,” Belichick said. “That was a great situational play and we needed it at that time.”
The Patriots sealed the win when the Cardinals missed a 47-yard field goal. As Belichick sees it, the extra 17 yards in field position the Patriots earned with their kickoff strategy probably won the game for them, as if everything else had played out the same the Cardinals would have had a much easier 30-yard field goal.
“In the end, those yards showed up on the other end of the field,” Belichick said.
And that’s why the new touchback rule doesn’t work the way it was intended: Smart coaches can use the rule to create advantages with more kickoff returns, not more touchbacks.