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One-third of game could be devalued if rule change passes

The Jets' Brad Smith must be hoping it is not true. In fact, he might be praying the latest potential change in the kickoff rules is really a bad dream. If the NFL decides to move the ball up -- yes up to the 35-yard line -- thus allowing kickers to boot the ball out of the end zone, why would teams invest significant dollars in a returner?

Smith is a highly productive returner who, prior to Tuesday, would have been a hot commodity when free agency returns. He was a game changer because he forced opponents to handle two elements in order to beat the Jets: Their pressure package and return game.

Paul Abell / Associated Press
Leon Washington had three kickoff returns TDs last season, part of the 23 total scored. In 1993, the last time kickoffs started at the 35-yard line, there were only four kickoff return touchdowns in the league.
Kickoff returns in 2010 vs. 1993
Season 40+ yard returns Touchdowns
2010 113 23
1993 57 4

Smith helped control vertical field position for the Jets. In his 50 returns last season, Smith averaged 28.6 yards and scored two touchdowns. With the possible rule change, the Jets won't be able to benefit from the explosive nature Smith provides. In fact, no one will get 50 chances to return kicks if the rule passes. That hurts the Jets and any other team placing a huge value in having a return man.

So why invest money in a return man? Teams won't. Why would anyone sink money into a position that would be stifled by the new rules, not the opponent? It goes a step further. Teams won't have to invest money in coverage players, which will allow younger, cheaper guys to be used on kickoff coverage. With a yes vote next week from the league, the kickoff to start the game will be boring. Most of the balls will be booted out of the end zone and brought to the 25-yard line.

Now, I am all for player safety and love being a divergent thinker, but this rule would help teams that do not put an emphasis on the kicking game. Teams like the Giants, who have poor return and coverage teams, would benefit. Special teams is one-third of the game, and the league could take a large chunk of the game away, emphasizing offense and defense even more.

While the punt returns are still going to be a factor, players are often caught illegally blocking and a good return is about 10 yards. Not to mention, teams can kick the ball out of bounds (remember that concept, Matt Dodge?) without a penalty, thus taking away a great returner. With the kickoff being minimized and teams having the ability to take away the punt return, what is left for the special teams?

Putting the ball on the 35 for NFL kickers is like having golfers play a par 4 on a 295-yard hole. They might not always drive the green, but more often than not, the ball will be somewhere close, and the hole will play like a par 3. The Broncos might never have to work on kick coverage, because Matt Prater can boom the ball at home with the altitude, or away. Most teams have kickers who can do the same.

Baldinger: Not-so-special rules
The strength of many teams lies within their strategy on special teams, and the rules proposed to alter kickoffs would only marginalize that part of the game, says NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. More ...

» Kirwan: Lessoning value of kickoffs

Rule changes should be about safety, but not changing core elements of the game. We need the kickoff return. We need players who specialize in covering kicks to be on rosters and, most of all, we need organizations to build with special teams being an important part of the equation. This rule would make it easier, not safer, and this one should be revisited before a yes vote is cast.

At this point, Seahawks' return specialist Leon Washington has to feel lucky. He got a four-year deal before the rule change was proposed. Like Smith, Washington is a game-changing returner. He won games for Seattle a year ago, and the Seahawks paid him for his services. Now, he might not have a way to prove his worth.

Sometimes timing is everything.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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