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Monday Morning Mailbag: Sparking Special Teams & Comparing Rules

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The questions below may have been edited for clarity.

I recently read an interview with Bud Grant where he made some suggestions for special teams. One of his suggestions was to eliminate fair catches by using what they do in the Canadian Football League like giving the punt returner 5 yards of space before engaging in an attempted tackle. These changes will make special teams more relevant than it is now. I think the NFL could use some other things used in the CFL, like a slightly wider field and a longer end zone. I think this will increase scoring and make the game more exciting. Do you think the league will even consider some of the changes Bud Grant suggested?

— Kenneth Beroid

Please explain our kicking game options going into training camp. I am concerned that, with new coaches again, the third phase might bite us. And can we get a punt returner please?

— David in Manitoba

We'll start this week north of the border and on special teams. I appreciate the patience Kenneth and David extended in waiting for me to get back to them in this space. I wanted to save these two questions for when the Mailbag was a little less crowded.

View the best images of Vikings legendary head coach Bud Grant on the 50th anniversary of his hiring.

First off, when Bud Grant speaks, I usually make it a habit to listen. It has been truly incredible to write about Coach Grant and learn directly from his wisdom and wit in-person. He's an authority on the CFL and NFL, given he's a member of the CFL Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It's amazing how many differences there are between the CFL, which has already completed its Week 3 schedule, and American football, which is on its hiatus between spring programs and the opening of training camp next month. The CFL uses 12 players on offense and defense, and the fields are much larger.

The CFL field is 110 yards long and 65 yards wide, with 20-yard end zones compared to American dimensions of 100 yards long, 53.33 yards wide and end zones that are 10 yards. Including the end zones, the CFL field has 87,750 square feet, compared to 57,564 square feet of space on an American football field.

Historical side note: Why 53.33 yards wide? Those were the dimensions that fit at Harvard Stadium, which was built in 1903 and became the first permanent concrete stadium for athletics in America.

The concrete wasn't going to move easily when attempts to make the field wider in the name of player safety were being debated, so Harvard objected to widening the field.

Thus, the forward pass was introduced in 1906 as a way to open up the game and reduce injuries.

Thanks, Harvard.

The significant role Harvard Stadium played in American football is why I asked my wife, my best friend and his wife to take a ride to and from the venue when we all visited Boston in 2018.They always seem to not mind my historical addendums to our trips — or are great at hiding their resentments.

Back to now, the CFL introduced several rule changes in April for this season, including raising the penalty for a team covering a punt and violating the 5-yard halo to 15 yards. It also is now a penalty if a punt goes out of bounds before crossing the 15-yard line of the return team.

View the best special teams photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.

Those changes are designed to increase the number of punt returns, which can be an incredibly exciting play at any level of football.

I personally think part of what makes a punt return so exciting is the unpredictability and rarity of great ones, like triples in baseball.

There is not a halo rule of any length in the NFL, but punt returners must have the unimpeded opportunity to catch the ball.

This can create some catch-bang plays, and it requires some keen eyes from officials to make sure contact is not made before the returner can catch the football.

I wouldn't mind the introduction of a halo rule, but if that was created, coaches and players would probably find a way to adapt and prevent punt returns, like punting it out of bounds.

Most NFL rule changes in recent years have been shaped by player safety data, and I'd expect that to continue. I don't know how much interest there is in creating a halo rule.

Extending or widening the field probably would not work for most NFL venues, particularly the ones like U.S. Bank Stadium and other new venues that made it a point to place fans as close to the action as possible.

View the best photos of Vikings K Greg Joseph from the 2021 season.

I bet every coach from an offensive background wouldn't mind another 5 or 10 yards in the end zone, but defensive coaches would probably oppose having to cover more real estate.

As for David's question, the Vikings roster has kicker Greg Joseph set to return after he scored 135 points in his debut season with Minnesota, long snapper Andrew DePaola and punters Jordan Berry and Ryan Wright.

Minnesota signed kicker Gabe Brkic to compete with Joseph, but Brkic was released after minicamp earlier this month. Joseph had a strong showing this spring.

Berry is a veteran preparing for his eighth season and second in Minnesota. He averaged a career-best 46.5 yards per punt last season. Wright joined the team as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane. It will be a camp battle to keep an eye on.

As for punt returner, that's a role the Vikings have struggled to fill in recent years. Marcus Sherels was always appreciated by many, including me, for many reasons, but what the return game has produced since has made his great contributions even more impressive.

View the best photos of Vikings P Jordan Berry from the 2021 season.

Minnesota averaged a paltry 4.3 yards per punt return in 2020 and hasn't returned a punt for a touchdown since the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. They are not directly related, just noting it's been quite a while since Sherels zoomed 79 yards against the Texans on Oct. 9, 2016, in the third regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Vikings brought in Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels and assistant special teams coach Ben Kotwica this offseason. I'm looking forward to seeing their influence on the punt return game that former Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken (now with the Chargers) helped improve last season.

I'm a diehard fan, and since the staff changed up, I think some good play calling should happen.

— Antonio Watson in Saluda, South Carolina

Antonio joins a lot of us who are excited to see what the Kevin O'Connell era brings to Vikings football. The first-year head coach said he expects to call offensive plays, a role in which he previously excelled in as the offensive coordinator for the Rams. Minnesota's Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips was with O'Connell in Los Angeles and Washington, so their familiarity should help during games and in the important preparations each week as they identify the plays they think will have the greatest chances of success in particular situations.

I love the enthusiasm, but I also remember we had fans in the in-game chat hosted by Vikings.com's Lindsey Young who were calling for Klint Kubiak's job before the first quarter of Week 1 ended last year in Cincinnati. Minnesota committed multiple rare penalties in that stretch, causing the offense to have to play off-schedule, rather than ordering plays from its preferred menu out of the gate. Kubiak did some good things over the course of last season.

Play calling is rarely ever going to be perfect. Please keep that in mind, folks, once 2022 rolls around. Not saying to expect anything less than good or better than good, but maybe it's worth giving a moment (more than a quarter of football) to assess.

Hello from Vancouver, Washington!

I'd have to admit, I'm a hardcore Broncos fan living out here, looking up on the Vikings because they are actually my second team. I happen to wonder that there are several Broncos former coaches who landed on your team, is that because Coach O'Connell has some connections out there in Denver? This makes me feel like this team is like "Minnesota Bronkings" since there are plentiful of Broncos and Vikings exchanges in the last few years or so!

Nouri Marrakchi in Vancouver, Washington

We'll close with a little bit of just how interconnected the NFL can be.

Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell, offensive line coach Chris Kuper, running backs coach/run game coordinator Curtis Modkins and assistant offensive line coach Justin Rascati all joined Minnesota's staff this offseason after a change atop the Broncos.

View the best photos from the Vikings 2022 offseason including practice and off-the-field moments.

It is not uncommon for multiple coaches to migrate together because they often have shared philosophies and experiences working together. The offensive line, for instance, should go hand-in-hand with the run game.

Offensive lineman Austin Schlottmann, linebacker Andre Mintze and cornerback Nate Hairston are also former Broncos.

We've seen former Vikings QBs Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater take the field for Denver in recent years, too.

I guess the great thing for Nouri is the Vikings will face the Broncos to close the preseason and then won't meet again in the regular season until next year, so allegiances can be extended to both teams this season — unless Vikings-Broncos becomes the Super Bowl LVII matchup.

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