The league's leading kick returner wants to avoid extinction.
Lions running back Ameer Abdullah broke into the NFL in 2015 as a dual-threat weapon out of the backfield, but made a name for himself in the return game. With new touchback rules set to change the way special teams units operate this season, the second-year speedster is pleading to make the kick return great again.
"They can't take the kickoff away ... I have to see the numbers to believe it's too dangerous," Abdullah told MLive.com on Friday. "I return kicks. I watch the film. What I see is what I see, and I think there are more dangerous plays out there.
"You can only have two-man wedges now too, so it's basically just one-on-one blocks. I just don't think it's dangerous enough to eliminate."
You can't blame Abdullah for wanting to keep his role relevant. The 23-year-old led the NFL with 37 kick returns and 1,077 kick return yards as a rookie in 2015. However, his league highs were the lowest in a non-strike season since 1976 (Lou Piccone, 31) and 1993 (Clarence Verdin, 1,050), respectively. In fact, over the last four seasons, both league highs have steadily decreased from David Wilson's 57 returns and 1,533 return yards in 2012.
This decrease in return totals is not due to a decrease in talent by any measure, but rather a reaction to the rules changes that continue to alter strategies on kickoffs. Five years ago, the kickoff was moved from the 30 to the 35-yard line, to produce more touchbacks because the high-speed collisions that are part of kickoff returns make them among the most dangerous plays in the game. The results? In 2010, before the rule was changed, teams returned 80.1 percent of all kickoffs. Last season, 41.1 percent of kickoffs were returned.
The most recent change, set to take place this season, will move the touchback from to the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line, further incentivizing against returning kicks out of the end zone. There is also a fear that the rule change may increase the use of the "mortar kick", a very high, but relatively short kick that forces returns to begin just before the goal line.
Weighing player safety versus the integrity of the game and its entertainment value is a discussion that NFL owners and league figures take very seriously, and rightly so. But Abdullah, a player who will feel the immediate impact of these rule changes, remains fixed against them.
"It's one of the most exciting plays in football," Abdullah said. "It's a play that changes the game, especially if you have a game where the offenses and defenses are matching each other."