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Quick Hits: Super Bengals Special Teamer Talks New Kickoff; Charlie Jones To Get Chance Returning Kicks

S Michael J. Thomas
S Michael J. Thomas

When the NFL owners approved the massive change in the kickoff earlier this week to revive the return, one of the first players Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons heard from was one of his core players of the last three seasons.

Safety Michael Thomas, who was so important last year at age 33 that he didn't play a game but still served on the practice squad all season helping the kicking game, texted Simmons, "Congratulations." Simmons fired back, "You, too."

"The players' association had a lot to do with this, too," Simmons says. "It helps guys like him stay in the league. It's a good deal for them."

Thomas, a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee, turned 34 last week and is a free agent waiting for a call. So he's not sure if he'll be helping implement the rule after he spent the past year consulting with the special teams coaches who crafted it.

But he is certain it is going to work. He believes the major changes, moving the return team up five yards away from the cover team and discouraging touchbacks by moving them up the 30, is going to add at least 1,000 more returns while maintaining the health and safety of players.

"Since I came into the league in 2012, there have been rules that went after special teams and almost trying to take the kickoff out altogether. That's two out of the four special teams," Thomas said. "It's different. It's definitely changed. This is just an example of trying to keep the play in.

"If you look, there are exciting elements the fans are going to like and the players are going to like. Once they see the different variations of what is going to happen. Is a team just going to kick it out and allow you to start at the 30 and not value the drive start? Or are they going to drive it low and use their speed and a young returner screws up and we score a touchdown?"

A few more questions for Thomas:

_With the play now condensed, do you think teams deploy more linebackers and edge players and fewer safeties? Size instead of strength?

(Thomas jokes that after the last two years in which the Bengals have drafted speed merchants such as safety Tycen Anderson, cornerback DJ Turner II, and running back Chase Brown, "they were able to get rid of the old guys.")  

"It's going to come down to preference. Let's say a team loves big bodies and two-gaps and sheds blocks and makes tackles like linebackers and defensive ends, they'll use those guys. For the coaches who love speed, they have the ability to do it. Darrin can use his speed demons. I think we'll see plays made inside the 20 and guys saying how do we block that?"

_Will the returns look more like running plays because of the close quarters?

"Unlike the XFL, where all ten guys on the return team have to be on that restraining line, we're able to back up a few guys off the ball, so you can quick set double teams. On different levels, there can be guys that can go and block on the other side, if you want to go right or left return because they're off the ball a little bit. Essentially, it looks more like a trap block as far as a running play.

"(But) what I like about the rule is it leaves room for creativity and scheming. You can still run twists and games, as long as that returner can hit it, recognize it fast enough. Then he can hit full speed and full stride. Or will they have to stutter their feet because the speed guys make a play on the ball? There are so many variables, it's going to lead to a lot of excitement for the fans."

_How do you think Bengals kicker Evan McPherson is going to handle not being able to blast it into the end zone and will he have to make a bunch of tackles?

"These kickers are good, and Money Mac is one of the better in the league. Great control. Great power. I think he can put the ball where  ever he wants with as much hang time as he wants, even in cold weather like in Cincinnati. It depends how Darrin wants to scheme it up using either his speed or power, Evan will do great at ball placement and executing Darrin's scheme.

"Again, it's scheme. How does the coach want to use safeties? The teams that have all speed out there, you could have a different safety on every single play and decide who pulls out as a safety depending on where you kick the ball … Darrin is going to make adjustments based on this new rule and how he's going to use his safeties so Evan doesn't have to make tackles … I think he's been studying this for a long time and he has some answers already. He's going to protect Evan as much as possible. We need Evan kicking those field goals."

RETURN GAME: Simmons has said he thinks the strategy is going to dictate that he'll use two returners on a kickoff instead of one, but he's been a bit more reticent when it comes to how that impacts roster building. Such as in how many do you keep and does the rule mean a change in the specifications?

But he did say the new kick return doesn't make it more like a punt return, although he says lateral movement and shiftiness is going to be more useful against this alignment.

Yet he also says one of his most successful kick returners, 2019 NFL leader Brandon Wilson who used his straight-away speed and power to bolt to 31.3 yards per kick that year, would still be the weapon he was five years ago because he also had good lateral movement to go with his 4.3 speed.

Wilson hasn't played in the NFL since he tore his ACL halfway through the 2021 season and he was one of the people that reached out to Simmons Tuesday to ask him what he thought of the rule.

Simmons also heard from Charlie Jones, last year's punt returner and first Bengals' rookie to return one for a touchdown in 23 years.

Yes, Jones is going to get a shot at kickoffs. He didn't return one as a rookie after 45 kick returns in college, headlined by his 2021 season at Iowa when he took one back and averaged 25.4 yards for a year he ran back 25 kicks. Jones has shown adroit lateral moves.

"I don't know if it helps Charlie, but it will help accentuate some of his skills," Simmons said.

MORE MIKE: Thomas, who came off the street to help the Bengals get to the Super Bowl in 2021, is out there again and he hasn't heard anything from the Bengals or anyone else.

"I'm not keeping the phone at my side every single moment, but the ringer is on," Thomas said from Houston. "I'm being Daddy Daycare. I'm not retired. I haven't called it yet. I owe it to the 22-year-old kid who went undrafted to keep the lines open."

If no phone call comes, he's got plenty on his plate.

"I'm sure I'm still going to be serving the players after the game," Thomas said. "I'll still be involved in this game in some capacity. Maybe from the business side instead of running down kicks."

It will be recalled that it was Brandon Wilson's injury that activated Thomas from the practice squad in mid-November of '21 and the 2019 special teams Pro Bowler went all the way to SoFi as the quarterback of the punt team.

"I'll always be grateful to the Bengals for getting me back in the league and giving me the chance to play in a Super Bowl," Thomas said. "It was life changing."