EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Carter Coughlin will willingly and happily accept any assignment on a football field, but he enjoys one of his regular roles more than any other.
"I love kickoffs," Carter said. "I love running downfield. Kickoff is my favorite, for sure. I don't like K.R. (kickoff return) as much. Being a defensive guy, I'd rather go tackle somebody than block somebody. Because I just love tackling people. That's been my favorite part of football since third grade."
Coughlin and everyone else who enjoys covering kickoffs will have fewer opportunities this season. The kickoff is the NFL's most dangerous play, and the league says that concussions and other injuries suffered on the play have increased in recent years. Last month, NFL owners voted in a new rule that will make it a touchback on the 25-yard line whenever a returner makes a fair catch on any kickoff inside the 25. The league predicts the rule will reduce the number of kickoff returns from 38 to 31 percent, and reduce concussions by about 15 percent.
How it affects players like Coughlin and Cam Brown, fourth-year Giants linebackers whose pro careers have been built on their special teams prowess, remains to be seen. Fewer kickoffs mean fewer chances for them to make plays and impact a game.
"There's nothing better than running down on kickoff," said Brown. "You get free will to go run into somebody as hard as you can or go make a play. It's just you versus the people in front of you. It's fun. It's a fun time, but, I mean, you've got to adjust. So, we're going to make the most of the ones we do get nowadays."
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Thomas McGaughey is entering his 10th consecutive season as an NFL special teams coordinator and sixth with the Giants.
"They make the rule changes," McGaughey said, "and we'll govern ourselves accordingly. So, we'll make the adjustments as a special teams fraternity and try and keep it moving."
Under the old rule, touchbacks were awarded only if the kickoff reached the end zone. A fair catch resulted in the ball being spotted at the point of the catch, as it is on a punt. Many NFL kickers became adept at placing the ball inside the five-yard line, forcing an opponent's return that was often stopped by players like Coughlin and Brown inside the 25.
Many of those opportunities will now be lost.
"We've got a lot of really, really smart coordinators in this league, TMac being one of them," said Coughlin. "It'll be interesting to see if teams start mixing in some squib kicks and do different things to take away the opportunities to fair catch. There are probably going to be less opportunities to go make a play. So, when those opportunities come, we've got to make the most of it."
Their chances to do that came far more often on special teams than on defense in their first three seasons.
In 2022, Brown and Coughlin tied for the team lead with 398 special teams snaps. Brown played three defensive snaps and Coughlin six. Brown's career totals are 961 special teams and 111 defensive snaps. Coughlin, who has played 705 special teams snaps, participated in 192 defensive plays as a rookie in 2020. In the ensuing two years, he played a total of 45.
But Coughlin tied for the team lead last season with eight special teams tackles (seven solo). Brown was close behind with six (three solo). With the new rule, their contributions could be less frequent.
"I think the league has always been the same in the sense of the more you can do," Coughlin said. "I want to make as strong of a case for me to be able to play defense as much as possible. Whatever that looks like at the end of the camp, I want them to fit me in wherever they think I can help the team, whether that's some defensive snaps and playing all four special teams again. But at the end of the day, it's just the more you can do. It's a concern, but you can't focus on that, can't focus on things you can't control. You can just focus on getting better."