Felix Jones' kickoff return skills were one of the most immediate payoffs from last year's stellar draft. Jones returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score against Philadelphia and just missed going the route on a couple more before hamstring and toe injuries shortened his season.
A new rules change threatens to diminish Jones' return explosiveness. The NFL this week banned the traditional four and five man wedges that are common on all levels of play. When executed properly, they work like this:
Two years ago, I watched former special teams coach Bruce DeHaven work with the Cowboys’ returners and watched him teach his guys to use cutbacks. Returners were instructed to initially run directly up the field, even if it was not behind the wedge. The intent is to pull coverage guys towards you and give your wedge blockers an angle. After running a few yards upfield, the game is to then cut behind your blockers.
Jones followed this technique perfectly. Dallas had a center return called. Jones fielded Akers kick on his two, about three yards inside the yard numbers on the far sideline.
The Cowboys wedge formed at the fifteen, just outside the far hash mark. The Cowboys use Tony Curtis, Joe Berger, Pat McQuistan and Deon Anderson as their center four. They join hands and then move forward together under control until they encounter the line of Eagles. The returner who doesn’t field the kick, Isaiah Stanback in this case, runs up and flanks Anderson, adding a fifth blocker to the wedge.
Jones was about five to seven yards wide and to the left of Curtis, the closest wedge member, when he fielded the ball. Instead of angling to his right and running immediately to get behind his five bodyguards, Jones ran straight upfield, to about the ten...
-- Felix Jones -- He's Crafty -- Like a Cat, BSR, 9-16-2008
The new rule allows nothing larger than two-man wedges. The NFL cited safety as its rationale -- the wedges are collision magnets, which invited wedge-busters on other teams to throw their bodies into the line and "blow it up."
The National Football Post's Matt Bowen, a wedge-buster in his day, argues the rule change will wipe out the big return and make kickoffs far less interesting. I'm not sure I agree with Bowen, but I do agree that big kickoff returns will diminish if teams continue to use the same four people they've assigned to wedge duty in the past.
Dallas, as the quote demonstrates, used some combination of backup offensive linemen and fullbacks and blocking tight ends to form their four-man wedges. Berger and McQuistan formed the core of this group. Other teams have used defensive linemen; anybody who can produce the biggest bang against the wedge busters, who are usually linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks.
Two man wedges will place a premium on guys who can block in space, who can mirror a lighter, faster target and engage him one-on-one, or two-on-one in open field. The old wedges didn't require this of the linemen since coverage guys had to engage them. If you tried running around a wedge, the return man could simply hide behind it and follow the big grunts far upfield.
My guess is we may see fewer, if any offensive linemen on kickoff returns this year. Fullbacks, blocking tight ends and big backs will take their places. These guys are used to blocking blitzing linebackers, safeties and corners alone.
This will mean some of those many 4th, 5th and 6th round draft picks Dallas owns could be earmarked for smaller special-teams guys. Curtis was not tendered last month and has moved on. I had written before that Dallas will likely draft a fullback to replace him, since it needs a dependable hammer who can lead the three-headed Marion-Felix-Tashard monster on inside running plays.
I feel even more strongly the team will draft one now. The new wedge rules makes me think Dallas may now draft a fullback and a big blocking tight end.
The rule could also shape Dallas' and other team's thoughts about the backup linemen they activate. Dallas often activated seven offensive linemen on game day, the five starters and two backups who could cover the five line positions. If the Cowboys played next week and the old rules were in place, the backups would likely be Cory Proctor, who can play guard and center -- and who played wedge in '07 when he was a backup -- and Pat McQuistan, who has played wedge the past two seasons.
Under the new rules, Proctor would likely retain one spot, ahead of Montrae Holland, because he can play center. McQuistan had an edge at tackle because he doubled on the wedge. If that role disappears, the door is open for Doug Free, or some hotshot rookie draftee to make a push.
Back to Felix Jones. I think he and other talented returners will survive just fine. Kickoffs will now be treated as gigantic screen plays. Think of how often a good runner thrives in space on a screen pass, even when his linemen are whiffing one-on-one in space.
Cats can adapt, and Felix Jones is one crafty cat.