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NFL fumbles new rules about kickoffs

August 15, 2011

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— I’m all for making football as safe as possible, just as I’m all for motherhood and world peace and saving the whales and curing cancer.

But there is a fine line between making a violent sport safer and making it less exciting. In its rush to convince the players how much it really, really cares about their health and well-being so it can eventually get them to swallow the idea of adding two more regular-season games, the NFL did a dumb thing in March when it decided to move the spot of kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line.

Citing statistics that showed an increase in concussions and major injuries on kickoffs, the league essentially decided to throw out the baby with the bath water by getting rid of one of the most exciting plays in the game.

“We watched a lot of film and just felt it’s a play that needed modification,” Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the longtime co-chairman of the league’s competition committee, said in March. “The play is such and the injury data is such and the video is such that it needs revision.”

You saw the result of that “modification” Thursday night in the Eagles’ preseason game with the Baltimore Ravens when six of the seven kickoffs by the two teams resulted in touchbacks. Leaguewide, the touchback numbers in the first week of the preseason weren’t quite as slanted, but they still were up dramatically from a year ago.

Through 15 games, 43 of 127 kickoffs, or 33.8 percent, resulted in touchbacks. That’s more than double the touchback percentage on kickoffs in the league last year (16.4)

“They wanted to take the play out (of the game) to a certain degree, and the rule (change) certainly does take it out to a degree,” said Eagles special-teams coach Bobby April. “It’s fulfilling exactly what they intended it to fulfill.

“They moved it back (from the 35 to the 30 in 1993) so there would be more returns. Now they’re moving it up so that there will be less returns. It’s probably the only time they’ve ever put in a rule where they want to limit the potential of a big play.”

Like me, April is all for making the game safer. And, like me, he thinks the league went overboard with this rule change.

“You could get real philosophical about this and say if you want to be safe, don’t even play the game,” he said. “Do like Teddy Roosevelt wanted to do a hundred years ago (outlaw football). Nobody would get hurt if nobody was playing. So you’ve got to decide how far you want to go with that.

“I would think that because (the kickoff return) is such an exciting part of the game, because it’s such a great play, there’s going to be some type of way to get it back in.”

Along with moving the spot of kickoffs up five yards, the league also mandated that members of the coverage team had to line up no more than five yards behind the ball, theoretically preventing them from getting a running start. But as April correctly pointed out, by the time they make contact with either a blocker or the ball carrier, they’re up to full-speed.

“It’s not like that five yards really makes any difference,” he said.

April thinks his boss, head coach Andy Reid, who is a member of the coaches’ subcommittee of the competition committee, might have had the best idea of all for making kickoffs safer without de-emphasizing the play.

Reid’s suggestion: Prohibit blockers on the return team from going past the 25-yard line on their initial block, thereby eliminating those ram-like collisions between tackler and blocker.

“But I hope there’s a way that the play is not (eliminated),” April said. “Because kickers will get better. And soon that 60 percent returned will literally go down to 10, 15 percent. That’s why they moved it back 17 years ago. They said, ‘We can’t eliminate that play. It’s too exciting.’ Now it’s, ‘We’ve got to eliminate that play.’ “

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