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NFL moves kickoffs to 35-yard line; touchbacks unchanged

  • By NFL.com Wire Reports
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NFL kickoffs will take place at the 35-yard line -- not the 30 -- under a modified proposal passed by team owners Tuesday at the league's annual meeting in New Orleans, but not everybody is happy about it.

The change, which could be an advantage for kicking teams, might diminish what teams can accomplish on special teams and make for a less exciting product, said several coaches and players unhappy with the new rule.

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"I don't like the rule," Seahawks kick returner Leon Washington said on the "Brock & Salk" show on Seattle's 710 ESPN Radio. "And I'm sure (the New York Jets') Brad Smith and (Chicago's) Devin Hester and (Cleveland's) Joshua Cribbs and the rest of those guys that do a really good job of returning the ball don't like the rule. It's part of the game that's really exciting. I think fans look forward to it because it's an instant momentum-changer."

Washington and others around the league said the change, made to address player-safety issues, would breed more touchbacks and substantially impact field position, likely leading to less scoring.

"There just won't be as many returns, and I think it's going to affect things like scoring, and there'll be more of an emphasis on directional kicking ...," Cincinnati Bengals special-teams coach Darrin Simmons told his team's official website. "There are going to be more touchbacks and more 80-yard drives, and scoring drops sharply because there are a lot more scoring drives of 70 yards than drives over 80."

Touchbacks will continue to be brought out to the 20, and teams still will be allowed to use the two-man blocking wedge.

The league's competition committee initially proposed moving touchbacks up to the 25, eliminating the blocking wedge and limiting coverage players from long run-ups. The league reduced the number of players allowed in a blocking wedge to two in 2009.

Several coaches expressed concern about making too many changes on kickoffs, saying that bringing touchbacks out to the 25 would affect field position too much. Coaches are worried about an increase in touchbacks from last season's 16 percent.

"Any time there's a touchback, and now it's not coming to the 20," New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said, "I think that that probably was the most drastic of the four or five items that constituted one rule."

Making kickoffs safer was the objective, and Payton believes the owners met it, voting 26-6 for the new rule.

"The bottom line is it's ... the highest risk of injury play," he said.

Competition committee chairman Rich McKay said coaches were concerned about an increase in high kicks from the 35 intended to trap returning teams deep and severely decreasing the number of returns. He also said the two-man wedge wasn't a driving force in the uptick in injuries on kickoffs. Indeed, more injuries occur in coverage than on the return squads.

Paul Abell / Associated Press
Seattle's Leon Washington had three of the 23 kickoff-return touchdowns scored in the NFL last season. In 1993, the last time NFL kickoffs started at the 35-yard line, just four kickoff-return TDs were scored.
Kickoff returns in 2010 vs. 1993
Season 40+-yard returns Touchdowns Touchbacks
2010 113 23 416
1993 57 4 520

As for the six no votes, McKay said: "The objections were 'Hey, you're affecting my team.' Clearly, some teams have good kick returners, and they said, 'What if there's 10 percent less returns?'

"We have no answer, but player safety will always trump any other consideration."

Yet the two player-safety amendments were tabled until the May league meetings. A proposal to outlaw players launching to make hits was deferred, as was expanding the definition of a defenseless receiver.

McKay said joining those two additions to a previous rule caused the tabling. Each of the proposals will be made into separate amendments before they are presented again.

"We didn't feel like there was enough support to get it passed," said New York Giants owner John Mara, a competition committee member. "A number of people seemed to be, in my opinion, more concerned about flags being thrown for questionable hits. My feeling is I'm more concerned about needless concussions, so I'm willing to make that trade. But I think we need to go back and just clarify some of the language, maybe to make it a little bit more clear for everybody."

McKay praised players for avoiding launching themselves during the second part of last season after the league threatened suspensions for illegal and flagrant hits. No suspensions were handed out, but Ray Anderson, the NFL's chief disciplinarian, said they will be in play from the outset of next season.

Several other rule changes were made, but the kickoff alterations drew the greatest response from players and coaches.

"It's going to help teams that aren't real good at kickoff coverage," Chicago Bears special-teams coordinator Dave Toub said on his team's website. "Touchbacks are a good option for them or for anybody playing us. That's a win for them."

Bears return specialist Hester, who has an NFL-record 14 touchdowns on kick returns, also has a problem with the rule.

"They might as well put up the arena nets (behind the end zones), man, because there's going to be a lot of balls going in the end zone ...," he said on "Waddle & Silvy" on Chicago's ESPN Radio 1000. "They're going too far. They're changing the whole fun of the game. Fans come out to see, especially to Chicago, to see returns. That's one of the key aspects to our team. Fans (love) our big returns, and taking that out of the game" makes for a lesser game.

Washington, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season, said he "was telling my dad the other day it just looks like there's going to be a bunch of 109-yard kickoff returns, because I plan on coming out of the end zone if that takes place.

"You know what?" Washington continued. "It's going to take a lot of strategy for the coaches to come up with a plan for how to take advantage of the opportunities you do have. I think, as a returner, you have to really study the game, study the kickers and try to approach the game from that angle. ... Special-teams coaches have to really, really prepare themselves and really game-plan around how to take advantage of when you do have opportunities."

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told his team's website that concerns the kickoff changes would take the ball out of returners' hands weren't justified.

"There's a chance to minimize the impact or maximize it because the better returner will really be the better returner now," Lewis said. "To have a great returner, it may put him in play more."

A proposal to allow the replay official to review all scoring plays at any time during games passed 30-2, but coaches still can receive a third challenge if they win the first two.

The replay official now can call for the referee to review any scoring play. Previously, replay officials could order reviews (on any play) only in the final two minutes of each half and in overtime.

Coaches pushed for the change in great part because they believed they didn't get a fair shake in road games.

"It's a real big competitive disadvantage," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You don't get that look at it on the road that you get at home; they just don't show it."

One proposal was adopted unanimously, giving the commissioner the power to approve or deny requests to change the color of the playing field from green. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the concern was that sponsors could approach teams and suggest a deal that involved altering a field's color.

As McKay previously noted with a smile, "We don't want any red fields, like at Eastern Washington."

NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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