FOOTBALL: NFL fumbles kick return rule


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
But there is a fine line between making a violent sport safer
and making it less exciting.
By Paul Domowitch – Philadelphia Daily News

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – 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 (the Jets and Houston play Monday night), 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. I thought the proposal by the coach from Rutgers was fantastic. Because then, you’re taking out the type of blocking you’re using on the wedge. But you’re not taking out the play.”

Last year, after one of his players, Eric LeGrand, was paralyzed while covering a kickoff, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano suggested eliminating kickoffs altogether and replacing them with a modified punt. Under Schiano’s plan, the kicking team would have the option of running a fourth-and-15 play from its own 30-yard line or punt from there.

The thinking behind the fourth-and-15 option is that it would replace the onside kick as far as giving the kicking team a way of getting the ball back. By replacing a kickoff with a punt, you would eliminate the dangerous collisions on kickoffs that cause most of the concussions and significant injuries, yet not eliminate the returns.

“The biggest thing with the kickoff is you have two guys running directly at each other,” April said. “The guys in the wedge are sort of like fullbacks on an ‘iso’ block. Except there’s a lot of field for them (to get a running start).

“I mean, I agree with the (new) rule for safety. I just think they’re going to have to keep looking. Because while the new rule is going to reduce the number (of kickoff returns), the play itself really isn’t any safer. You can still get that buildup (for a collision) with the way the rule is.”

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.

“I thought that was the most sage idea,” said April, who is regarded as one of the league’s best special-teams coaches. “Obviously they didn’t take it. But if you made everybody block in front of the 25, then everything would be pass-blocking and you wouldn’t have ‘iso’ blocks.

“Of all the things I’ve heard to keep that (kickoff return) play in, that’s the best. It accomplishes everything. You have all the strategy. You have all the same deals. It still can be an exciting play, yet you’ve minimized the danger of the play.”

April thinks that by the end of the season, the percentage of touchbacks will be somewhere around 40 percent. But he thinks that rate will keep going up until kickoff returns are few and far between.

“Safety’s the right thing,” he said. “Nobody’s ever going to argue against safety. Nobody in their right mind would argue that if there’s a play that’s hurting people, you shouldn’t do something about it.

“But I hope there’s a way that the play is not (eliminated). 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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