Matthew Slater isn’t happy the NFL is messing with what’s helped make him a 10-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
Slater’s built his legacy being one of the best in the game at covering kickoff returns, a play the league is “making an effort to eradicate,” according to the 37-year-old. He’s referring to the rule change, set to take effect during the 2023 season, which makes it legal to call for a fair catch anywhere when fielding kickoffs, with the ball then placed on the 25-yard line.
The rule has sparked controversy, and Slater doesn’t believe the NFL is interested in player safety, per ESPN’s Mike Reiss: “I understand we want to reduce head injuries and things of that nature, but we don’t always act as if player health and safety is paramount. If we’re really concerned with player safety and health, let’s talk about some of the real issues. Let’s not talk about a play, when (a high percentage of the time) the ball is kicked off, it’s injury-free.”
Slater asked why NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league don’t concentrate on other dangers. Reiss noted how Slater identified the risks posed by turf, overplaying for Thursday Night Football and “retirees fighting for health care beyond five years after retirement” as more worthy causes to be addressed in the name of player safety.
For their part, those involved in amending how kicks are returned (or not), made their decision with concussions in mind. That’s according to the head of NFL health and safety, Jeff Miller, who told Judy Battista of NFL Network how “you can’t stand by and do nothing.”
Miller’s thoughts are shared by NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay, per Battista.
Although this isn’t the first time the league has made tweaks to the rules governing the kicking game, Slater is concerned about the latest threat to what he does best.
Matthew Slater Under Threat From New NFL Rule
Slater knows how much his career has relied on the opportunity to impact games afforded him by covering kicks: “For a player like myself, I wouldn’t have had a career most likely (without) this play. I (also) understand the players that came before me — the (Steve) Taskers, the (Bill) Bateses … — who were able to establish themselves and have careers in this league because of the kicking game.”
The reference to decorated special teamer Steve Tasker of the Buffalo Bills is significant. Like Tasker, Slater is ostensibly a wide receiver, but the 15-year pro has just one reception to his credit since being drafted in the fifth round back in 2008.
Instead, Slater has become one of the greats by consistently making big plays on special times, like the ones highlighted by Taylor Kyles of Patriots on CLNS.
No. 18 is such a force in football’s third phase opponents have to gameplan specifically to stop him. Slater’s status as a marked man was obvious when the Chicago Bears paid him some extra attention during a 33-14 defeat for the Pats at Gillette Stadium in Week 7 last season.
As Nicholas Moreano of CHGO Bears showed, the visitors made sure to put bodies on Slater on the kickoff.
Slater has earned attention for how he’s made special teams a key pillar of the Patriots’ success during the reign of head coach Bill Belichick. The latter has always made special teams a priority thanks to his days overseeing kicking and coverage units with the Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos and New York Giants, during the early years of his coaching career.
It’s no surprise Belichick shares some of Slater’s reservations about the rule change.
Bill Belichick’s History Explains Pats’ Resistance to New Rule
Reiss pointed out how the Patriots voted against the proposed new rule, without success. It’s easy to work out why given Belichick’s history on special teams.
He’s developed and coached many great players in kick coverage, including Larry Izzo. The former linebacker, who is now special teams coach for the Seattle Seahawks, went to three Pro Bowls as the predecessor to Slater in the first half of the Patriots’ six-Super Bowl dynasty on Belichick’s watch.
Asked about today’s rule alteration, Belichick told reporters he agreed with the thoughts of Baltimore Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh and Kansas City Chiefs’ boss Andy Reid, who both voiced their opposition to the change.
Belichick didn’t like it when the NFL moved kickoffs out to the 35-yard line and eliminated two-man wedges in 2011. It was also seen as a threat to the way special teams is played, but as with most rule changes throughout NFL history, the game survived and its teams adapted.
Slater made all 10 of his Pro Bowls after the previous rule change, so he and the Patriots can be counted on to adjust again.