Browns’ York doesn’t believe NFL can give kicking the boot

BEREA — Browns kicker Cade York had some choice words regarding the NFL’s new kickoff rule.

NFL owners approved a resolution last week that will allow players to fair catch on kickoffs and have the ball moved up to the 25-yard line. The rule change will be for one year only, with the league citing player safety as a reason for its proposal.

If it’s their plan to start working kicking out of the game, I don’t think it’s going to work,” York told on Tuesday at the Cleveland Browns Foundation annual golf outing.

Across the league, the resolution has been exceedingly unpopular among players and coaches, including with York and new Browns special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, who spoke at length about the new rule on Wednesday following the Browns’ OTA session at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.

Both York and Ventrone also said that while they aren’t fans of the new rule, they don’t foresee it rehauling kickoff strategy and results overall.

Ventrone — who in his playing days was a special teams ace in Cleveland and elsewhere — said he trusts the Browns’ returners and that his mindset as a coach is still “return first.”

York in particular said he wouldn’t be surprised to see teams who have large leads take advantage of the new rule, but for the most part believes players and coaches prefer to take their chance in the return game to try and pick up more yardage and gain better field position.

“I don’t think it’s going to change the game that much,” York said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to stop returning the ball. If anything, it’s just going to change if someone’s up by a lot, they might fair catch it and stuff like that. I think most of the special teams coordinators want to return the ball because, I mean, that’s their job. Why would they want to just get rid of part of their job?

“It makes special teams less fun if it just takes it out of it.”

While the league cited player safety — in particular an effort to help curb concussions — as reason for the proposal, Ventrone said he believes the play is still a safe one.

“All the coordinators were against it, the players are against it, but supposedly there’s data,” Ventrone said. “We see a cut-up of the concussions that happened on kickoff. Me personally, do I agree that all those concussions are a result of how the play is? No, I completely disagree on that, actually. Do I feel like that play is safe? I do feel like that play is a safe play. I don’t feel like it’s a dangerous play.

“You’re not allowed to have a wedge in the back end. There’s not high-end collisions in the back end anymore. The double teams in the front eight are safe. I don’t think that’s an unsafe play. I truly don’t.”

In regards to player safety, Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, and NFL executive Jeff Miller said last week that according to their modeling, kickoff return rate will decrease from 38% to 31% and the concussion rate will drop 15% due to the approved proposal.

York said that while he understands the safety component of the new rule, knowing what it’s like on those kickoff plays, he’s not sure the new rule will be able to stop the collisions that do remain.

“They’re just trying to be safer, which I understand, but also, most of the time the guys covering the field can’t even see them trying to fair catch the ball,” York said. “So it’s not going to stop collisions for the most part, in my opinion. But I get what they’re doing.”

York also said that the new rule hasn’t changed his approach or mindset at all heading into 2023 and throughout the Browns’ offseason program.

In his rookie year, York averaged 67 yards per kickoff attempt — a semi-new responsibility for him considering that while he was at LSU, the Tigers had arguably the best kickoff specialist in the country in Avery Atkins, who handled the chore for four seasons through 2021.

Twenty-nine of York’s 81 kickoff attempts in 2022 were returned by opponents and he also had 50 touchbacks.

“My mentality is just do what I’m told,” York said. “If they want me to hang the ball up, I’ll hang the ball up. If they want me to hit a touchback, I’ll hit a touchback. So I don’t think that’s really going to change my mentality. I think it’s just going to change the return schemes. I think kickoff has to look at it like every ball is going to be returned or else it could get us in trouble.”