Ask Farmer: Examining kickoff returns and stars on the NFL badge

Why do NFL special teams coaches allow kickoff returners to take the ball out of the end zone? A touchback now starts a drive on the 25. Long returns are rare. The more common game changers from these “end zone” returns are turnovers (the Rams’ Pharoh Cooper, returning from four yards deep against the 49ers and fumbling), penalties and returns that force the offense to begin drives far short of the 25. Is there risk/reward data to support these high-risk returns?

Don Franco

Coto de Caza

Farmer: For this, let’s hear from Rams special teams coach John Fassel: “We look for kicks that match our call, meaning where we think is a good spot to return it. We need three things for a match: the distance, direction and hang time of the kick. So if you have a middle return set up, and the ball is kicked outside the numbers, it’s not a good match. That’s going to be a ‘stay’ ball. If you’ve got a left sideline return, and the ball is kicked down the right alley, that’s not a good match. But if you have a middle return and a middle kick, that’s good. So that’s the direction element.

“The distance element, you tell your returner, ‘Put your heels at five [yards deep in the end zone], and if it’s to you or in front of you, let’s go. Or in one week you might say, ‘Put our heels at three deep.’ So it kind of varies by game. And then hang time is just a feel thing by the returner. If it’s hanging up there, the returner probably needs to take a knee.”

As far as the fumble by Cooper, Fassel said: “It’s easy to say, ‘Why didn’t he just stay?’ after a fumble. But all those three elements told our returner to go. It was a kick that wasn’t deep; we had our heels on three. The direction was about where we wanted it, and it was a lower-hang-time ball, so Pharoh made a decision based on those three things. He has about four seconds to process distance, direction and hang time, and he made a decision to go and I was OK with that.”

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At the start of games on CBS they used to show the NFL badge as it has morphed through the years. The stars seemed to change with the ensuing years, what do they represent?

Russell Imel

Parker, Colo.

Farmer: The basic shape of the red-white-and-blue shield hasn’t changed since 1960, although the vertical pinstripes that run through the letters N-F-L were removed with the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. That shield had 25½ stars, and it seems there’s nobody at the league who can explain why. That appears to be an arbitrary number simply for the look.

The shield was redesigned before the 2008 season, however, and that version — which is still used — has eight stars representing the eight divisions.

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