New kickoff rule needs to be given the boot

August 16, 2011|By Peter Schmuck

The NFL meant well when the competition committee approved a new set of kickoff rules to reduce special-teams injuries.

However, the decision to move the ball forward 5 yards and cut down on the number of runbacks was a mistake that needs to be corrected before the start of the regular season.

Maybe that sounds callous, since it's hard to deny the likelihood that there will be fewer high-velocity collisions and — as a result — fewer players being helped off the field. It's even harder to argue in favor of more risk instead of less, and yet there are plenty of coaches and commentators doing just that after the first week of preseason games.

Football is a violent sport and the kickoff is one of its most dangerous plays, which is why the NFL has decided to make it the focus of this year's push to make the game safer for the players. That's certainly admirable on a human resources level, but I just don't see a lot of tailgaters rushing into the stadium to make sure they're in their seats in time for the opening touchback.

We're talking about turning one of the most exciting parts of the game into what Ravens coach John Harbaugh called "a yawner" after watching Billy Cundiff and Eagles rookie Alex Henery drill all seven kickoffs into the end zone on Thursday night — just one of them returnable.

The opening kickoff, in particular, pulls the crowd into the game and often sets the tone for the first half. The NFL clearly recognized that when it moved kickoffs back 5 yards from the 40-yard-line in 1974 and 5 more in 1994 as kickers became stronger and more adept at driving the ball deep into the end zone.

Each time, the change was made to reverse a decline in the number of kicks being returned. This time, the change was made for the opposite reason and it already is having a dramatic effect. The league that used to work so hard to make sure at least 80 percent of kicks were returned just had a game (Ravens versus Eagles) in which more than 80 percent of the kickoffs were returned by the officials to the 20-yard-line.

Not only do the new kickoff rules dramatically dilute an exciting dimension of the game, they are inherently unfair to the teams that have built the best kickoff and return units. The Ravens, for example, have benefitted greatly because Cundiff is the best in the NFL at kicking the ball out of the end zone and forcing opponents to start at the 20. Now, he's just another guy with a nice leg.

The Chicago Bears can't be happy that Devin Hester won't get as many opportunities to make a game-changing return. The same goes for several other teams with electrifying return men, including the Cleveland Browns (Josh Cribbs) and the Detroit Lions (Stefan Logan).

The rule change was adopted on March 22 as part of an ongoing attempt by commissioner Roger Goodell to make the game safer. It probably is not a coincidence that the new safety measures came about at roughly the same time Goodell and the owners were making a final push to convince the players union that an 18-game regular season would be a good idea. The players decided it wasn't and pushed it off the bargaining table.

So, can we opt out of this bad idea, too?

Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg obviously would like to see the ball placed back at the 30-yard-line.

"I didn't like the rule change, but I understood the reason for it and respect the reason for it,'' Rosburg said. "At the same time, the play is a very valuable play in football. It changes games. It turns field position. Turnovers are involved, and I think it's going to have a profound effect on the way football is played if it's just 'tee it up and kick it to the 20.'"

Despite a lot of grumbling around the 32 training camps, there has been no official indication that the competition committee might reconsider and there is no meeting of that committee scheduled before the first game of the regular season. That could change, especially if the backlash — from the sidelines and the stands — does not abate.

We can only hope.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal com.

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