New touchback rule: Another step toward eliminating kickoffs?

First, a lesson.

The mortar kick that has been spoken of so often in the last week is not what we are likely to see with any frequency next season. When owners voted during the NFL Annual Meeting to move the touchback to the 25-yard line in an attempt to discourage the kickoff return, resistant coaches and commentators said we would see more mortar -- a very high, but relatively short kick.

Not so, says a longtime practitioner of the kickoff.

"The quintessential mortar is if, on the last play of a drive, if you had a personal foul-type penalty, you're going to kick off from the 50-yard line, you kick a high lob kick instead of getting a touchback to pin people there," said Mike Westhoff, a longtime NFL special teams coach who now consults for high-profile college teams. "That's not the same as what people are talking about doing. Some people, if they have a good coverage team and a good kicker, they'll hit the regular kickoff, but they'll take a little off it and try to pin inside the 25."

Of all the rules changes that were deliberated this offseason, the change to the touchback might be the one that alters the game most noticeably, although the rule was approved only as a one-year experiment. Still, it is hard to imagine the league going back on an initiative that is billed as very much about player safety.

This step, it seems, is merely the next incremental one in the league's effort to all but eliminate kickoff returns.

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 league got what it wanted. In 2010, before the rule was changed, teams returned 80.1 percent of all kickoffs. The number dropped to 53.5 percent in the 2011 season and has steadily declined ever since. Last season, 41.1 percent of kickoffs were returned.

But that means that four out of 10 kickoffs are still being returned -- and that is plenty of opportunity for serious injuries. So the Competition Committee came up with the idea of putting the receiving team that takes a touchback on the 25-yard line, instead of the 20. The Competition Committee had pondered the idea before, and there is little question which way the league is headed. New York Giants president John Mara, a member of the committee, said last week that if the league could figure out what to do with the onside kick for end-of-game situations, the league would likely seriously consider getting rid of the kickoff entirely. It is a radical idea, but one that is clearly on the horizon.

Until then, the tweak to the touchback this season could be significant. Last year, just one team -- the Minnesota Vikings -- had an average starting position of drives outside of the 25-yard line (their average drive start was the 25.5-yard line). Every other team averaged drive starts inside the 25, including 12 teams that started from the 21-yard line or in. The difference is important. In 2015, when teams started a drive on their own 20, their touchdown percentage was 17.9. When they started on the 25-yard line, that percentage jumped to 20.8.

That is why many coaches resisted the change. Green Bay Packers head man Mike McCarthy blasted the rule just before it was approved.

"Do you want the kicking game in the game or not in the game?" McCarthy told reporters at the league meeting. "If it's in the game, let's kick it and return it and let's play the play. I just don't like ... Let's not reward a decision not to compete with 5 extra yards."

The decision to trade electrifying returns for fewer collisions seems to have been made back in 2011. But there is now considerable debate about how teams will approach the new rule. There are those who think this latest effort will backfire and give the NFL exactly what it doesn't want: more hits, but without the thrill of a Devin Hesteresque return.

Jay Feely, who spent 14 years kicking in the NFL, said he has spoken to several current kickers and he expects the new rule to generate more returns because teams do not want the opponent starting on the 25.

"I think it will have the opposite effect than the Competition Committee expects," Feely wrote in a text. "Every NFL kicker I talked to said he would change to a high, short kick to the goal line. It's not hard to do at all. The hard part will be the amount of hang time. The best kickers will be able to get 4.4 to 4.6 hang time kicking it to the goal line."

Westhoff, who has long been convinced that the league is slowly squeezing special teams out of the game, does not agree.

"It's not as easy as you think," Westhoff said. "What it will mean is a guy will have to kick his regular kickoff, try to get under it a little more, then you increase the margin for error. If you get too under it, then the ball is coming down on the 6-yard line. No matter what people say, they'll eventually figure it out. Coaches will say, 'Why the hell are we running it out from 4 yards deep?' You will see less returns. The league will get what they want. It's a very difficult thing. You're asking them to kick into the corner and a little bit higher. He's not going to be great and they're still going to return it. How many great coverage guys do you think they have today?"

Not enough, Westhoff argues, because there are already so many touchbacks that rosters are no longer constructed to hold on to top special teams players.

Westhoff continues to advocate his own solution, which he detailed a few years ago in a guest column for Westhoff has designed a way for both teams to line up on kickoffs that would reduce the distance of the running start for the coverage unit, thus limiting the speed of collisions. He'd supplement this with a rule that, if the ball goes past the 50-yard line on the fly, it would be treated like a punt, and could be downed where it landed. This approach, Westhoff theorizes, would reduce the number of returns and big hits, while saving the kickoff as a legitimate play.

After this season, the NFL might know if the kickoff is worth saving at all.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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