The NFL's decision to move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, a rule change that caused a spike in touchbacks during the first weekend of the 2011 preseason, has been widely criticized by coaches such as John Harbaugh, return specialists such as Joshua Cribbs and by bored football fans who pay to see those electrifying kickoff returns.
In Thursday’s preseason opener, six of the seven kickoffs booted by Baltimore’s Billy Cundiff and Philadelphia’s Alex Henery resulted in touchbacks. Tandon Doss was the only one who cared a return (a 26-yarder).
"If you look at the Eagles-Ravens preseason game, it was just a yawner," Harbaugh, a former special teams coach with the Eagles, said over the weekend. "I wasn't very impressed with it the first week."
He was certainly not alone. Some players and coaches are already advocating for a rule change to be made in the offseason after touchbacks have gone up nearly 20 percent compared to the 2010 regular season. Last season, 16.4 percent of kickoffs weren’t returned. In the first weekend of the preseason, there were 43 touchbacks in 127 kickoffs (33.9 percent).
“It might as well be a scrimmage,” Cribbs wrote on Twitter.
And there would have been more touchbacks had coaches not instructed their kickoff specialists to kick the ball short so their coverage teams could get some practice, something Harbaugh said he will do Friday in their second preseason game.
"We're going to have to punch it down there because we need to train our guys to cover kicks," Harbaugh said. "We're not going to go through the whole season kicking touchbacks. That would be foolish. Right now, they can know that they're going to get a chance to return kicks in this game because we need to cover them."
Harbaugh believes teams will try to kick the ball inside the 10-yard line, and with the coverage teams getting a five-yard start compared to last year, they will hopefully bring the returner down inside the 20.
“It is scary how fast you can be on top of that returner,” he said.
One thing teams can’t do: Kick off from back at the 30-yard line. The Bears tried that twice in their first preseason game, and when the NFL got wind of it, they weren’t pleased with the shenanigans.
It’s going to be interesting to see what teams come up with as they tinker with their kickoff strategy.
Well, unless you were a fan of those electrifying returns, the ones that figure to be few and far between in 2011.