Members of the NFL's competition committee have been in Naples, Fla., for a week, and in talking with some of them, it's clear safety remains the driving force of most issues they want to address, including one they'll propose at next week's owners meetings in New Orleans: Moving the kickoff up to the 35-yard line and bringing a touchback out to the 25.
When I worked with the New York Jets' special teams in the early '90s, teams kicked off from the 35, but they also started at the 20 on touchbacks. The new proposal, if adopted, will drive special teams coaches to a different decision in many cases.
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 ...**
If the proposal is passed, teams will be looking to kickoff to the goal line with more height. The coverage units will want a return, and the expectation will be for the tackle to be made inside the 25.
Before 1994, when the NFL moved the kickoff back to the 30-yard line, we expected a return to be stopped inside the 20. And now there is no reason to just kick deep for a touchback and surrender 25 yards. The optimum place to put the ball will be the corner box on the kickoff team's side of the field. The landmark for the kicker should be between the numbers and the sideline. The reason teams will want to kick there is to pin the returner down and invite a sideline return to the opposite side of the field.
Most teams that call for a sideline return want to execute it to their side of the field, and a ball caught on the far zone has to be returned across the field, ensuring the kicking team will be down in coverage. Most return teams call off the sideline return when the ball is caught in the opposite box and take it straight up the field, which means the fastest cover guys need to be on the same side the kick is headed.
It will be easy to kickoff with the intention of a touchback. Any ball more than three yards deep in the end zone should result in taking a knee and starting at the 25. When that doesn't happen, it will be imperative the kicker has a 4-second hang time and puts the ball right before the goal line.
Special teams coaches used to be able to tease the returner to come out when the ball went three yards deep in the end zone, but with coverage people five yards closer and the potential end of the two-man wedge, we'd see more speed players covering kicks. It would be difficult to get a returner to come out of the end zone.
Kick returners are still going to be on special teams. Usually it's the third running back. The idea that teams can neglect having a kick return specialist would assume that kickoffs are all landing in the end zone, which they are not.
In 1993, the last time kickoffs took place from the 35-yard line, only one player (Tyrone Hughes) among the 20 most frequent returns had a 25-yard average. He averaged 25.1 yards on 30 returns. Clarence Verdin had the most returns (50), and he had a 21-yard average.
There is more evidence that moving the kickoff five yards closer will have an impact. Last year, there were 23 kickoff returns for touchdowns. In 1993, there were four. And in 1992, there were six.
Whenever a player can take a touchback, he will. Things will be less exciting, but safety on the field should improve.