Ravens' Cundiff discusses proposed change to kicking game

NFL owners will vote Tuesday on proposal to move kickoffs to 35, have touchbacks come out to 25

March 21, 2011|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

NFL owners will work at cross purposes Tuesday when they vote in New Orleans on a proposal for significant rules changes to the kicking game.

Do they vote for player safety at the cost of reducing the prospect of long kick returns? Or do they vote for big kickoff returns at the cost of more potential injuries?

The NFL's competition committee has proposed moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35. At the same time, touchbacks would come out to the 25 instead of the 20 under the previous rule.

At first blush, the new rule likely would yield more touchbacks and fewer returns. Coaches — including the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick — appear to dislike the proposal, but it's the owners who are voting.

Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, whose 40 touchbacks from the 30-yard line last season broke a league record, would probably shatter that mark if he was five yards closer. But he said Monday he's not sure eliminating the big return is good for the game.

"I would love for a coach to say, 'Put it at the 35 and try for a touchback every time,'" Cundiff said. "Without seeing it played out, my gut says returns will go down. You're talking about taking one of the game's most exciting plays away."

In the interest of player safety, the competition committee — which includes several coaches — also proposes to outlaw wedge blocking entirely on kick returns and to start all players on the kick cover team, except the kicker, within five yards of the ball.

"Coaches hate it because there are so many moving parts," Cundiff said. "It's great that they're starting to look at certain plays in football that are high-risk plays and reducing the risk. But it's the ultimate balancing act for the competition committee — how do you insure player safety without taking away from the game?"

Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg was not available for comment Monday.

Cundiff's 40 touchbacks came on 79 kickoffs last season, a league-high 52.6 percent. He put 57 of those 79 kicks into the end zone, a shocking 72.2 percent that also led the league. The Ravens were second in the league in drive start by opponents.

By comparison, 17 percent of all NFL kickoffs ended in touchbacks in 2010, and 39.2 percent reached the end zone.

If the rule changes are adopted, Cundiff said he also could envision kicking the ball high to the goal line in an attempt to stop a returner inside the 20.

"The problem is, we don't know how it would play out," he said. "We might have a better idea about it after we play two preseason games."

Cundiff estimated he could get another "five to 10" touchbacks under the new rule.

"I understand the safety concerns," he said. "More guys got injured on the coverage team than the receiving team. You get guys, with the wedge up on them, that have gap responsibility and guys get concussions because it's a high-speed play. There's a lot of force production there. Because it's such a long play, it's a dangerous play.

"But if I was a fan, I wouldn't want the competition committee to take away any play that could dramatically shift momentum in the game. We had one this year, and everybody remembers David Reed's [103-yard touchdown] return against Houston."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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