NFL Kickoff Rule: Labor Bargaining Chip Hurts Returners, No Improved Safety

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NFL Kickoff Rule: Labor Bargaining Chip Hurts Returners, No Improved Safety
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Leon Washington scores one of his two TDs in a win vs. the Chargers

The Seattle Seahawks entered the 2011 free agency period with many needs.  Unfortunately for Seattle, the only free agents it's had an opportunity to negotiate with has been its own. 

The Seahawks did re-sign a few players, squeezing them in just under the wire before the labor issues began to be felt in earnest. The biggest move was giving return specialist and backup RB Leon Washington a new four-year deal.

Washington is slated to earn $12.5 million over the term of the contract and could reach $16 million if he hit undisclosed incentives. The all-important guaranteed money is $3.5 million. 

To be fair, when the deal was inked, the last thing either side was concerned with was the guaranteed part of the contract. Washington is second only to Devin Hester as a kick returner and offers some value as a change of pace RB. 

But today NFL owners approved a rule change that calls the value of Washington’s contract into question. The NFL will move kickoffs back up to the 35-yard line following 15 years of the ball being kicked off at the 30. 

Washington might have just become a very expensive kickoff shag man, and Seattle fans might have reasons to wonder why Pete Carroll and John Schneider inked this kind of a deal for a return man with the rule changes that were on the table.

Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Devin Hester has used his speed and return skills to become a dangerous pro bowl player in the NFL.

To be fair, the recommendation wasn’t made until after Washington’s contract was signed, but there were signs that the NFL would make another change to kickoff rules (they adjusted what was a legal “wedge” on kick returns during the 2010 offseason).

The owners’ vote was 26-6 in favor of the change. Coaches didn’t seem to echo their employers’ feelings, and some players are very upset. While the owners do respect that there could be a change to the game (there will be), they claim they were more concerned with improving player safety (there WON’T be).

Both of those assertions validate analysis, but this review won’t be discussing the impact on special teams in fantasy football leagues.

 

Changes in the Game

 The NFL moved kicks from the 35 to the 30 in 1994 to liven up the game. Touchbacks were on the rise, and return yards were decreasing. The change worked. Touchbacks dropped, and average return yards and TDs both increased. 

Most everyone agreed the change improved the game—kick returns are very exciting and can change momentum, whereas touchbacks...they’re just boring. 

As kickers became stronger, touchback percentages started to rise. In fact, they have increased each of the last six years—from 9.1 percent in 2005 to 16.4 percent in 2010. Billy Cundiff (K, Baltimore Ravens) punched over 70 percent of his kicks into the end zone in 2010, with 40 of 79 (52.6 percent) being downed for a touchback. With the move to the 35, his new goal may be to just split the uprights.

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Not surprisingly, several return specialists and their coaches are speaking out against the change.

"I don't like the rule," Washington said on the Brock & Salk Show (710 ESPN Seattle). "And I'm sure Brad Smith and Devin Hester and Joshua Cribbs and the rest of the guys that do a really good job of returning the ball don't like the rule.” 

Washington continued, “It's a part of the game that's really exciting. I think fans look forward to it because it's an instant momentum-changer."

Washington proved that time and again for Seattle in 2010, including two TDs vs. the Chargers that led to Seattle’s victory.

Cribbs didn’t let Washington down, stating via Twitter: “Essentially taking returners out of the game...injuries will still take place, then what move it up again, or eliminate it all together.”

Devin Hester’s coach also sounded off. Before the rule was passed, Lovie Smith said, "You just wonder how did we get to this point? First off, I can't believe we're really talking about it, the most exciting play in football. You would think we would want to keep that in.

"We would work as hard as we could to try to make it safer, but to eliminate that to me is just kind of tearing up the fiber of the game a little bit. Yeah, we have a great returner. But that's a big part of the game. Our fans are probably more interested in coming there to see Devin Hester running a ball back as opposed to seeing a kicker kick it out of the end zone with no action."

What will the impact be on player safety

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Improvement to Player Safety

 Concerns over player safety on kickoffs are important to consider and are what reportedly prompted the change. 

When asked about the six "no" votes, Atlanta Falcons president and competition committee chairman Rich 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?'"

However, some of those comments also stated that the change won’t improve safety. Aforementioned Chicago Bear head coach Lovie Smith noted that in two years, they have only seen one injury in the kicking game...a twisted ankle that would have happened anyway. 

While anecdotal information is only a small part of the story, coaches had solid rationale that this is not a safety issue. When pushed on this point, McKay added, “We have no answer, but player safety will always trump any other consideration.”

When making a rule change such as this, it would seem prudent to have a better feel for what the current impact is. The NFL has speculation and some data to support that kickoffs hold some added risk. However, they lack conviction on if the change will actually meet the desired end. It is almost as if there is something else at play (more on that in a moment).

One point the competition committee may have failed to give adequate consideration to is that player safety could actually be sacrificed with this change. 

Could this rule be all about labor negotiations

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Kickers are more adept at reaching the end zone than they were in 1994, and members of the kicking team are certainly faster. Yes, the new rule requires them to be within five yards of the ball, but this will not make them any slower at the point of impact and will only save a half-stride in them getting down the field. 

Some kickers, such as Jay Feely of the Arizona Cardinals, thrive on obtaining hang time and dropping the ball in front of the goal line. Pay attention during the summer exhibition games, as kickers will be experimenting with dropping the ball inside the 10 and giving gunners an opportunity to stop returners in their tracks.

The ongoing labor issues can’t be ignored as this issue is discussed. The owners claim to be taking a stance in favor of player safety and undoubtedly will use this in their bargaining positions.

One thing that likely won’t get mentioned, though, is they just reduced a chunk of their payroll. There is no reason to pay a return man Washington’s money, and Hester’s current deal (worth between $5 million and $10 million a year over four years) certainly wouldn’t have been signed.

This vote is quite likely all about the owners and labor negotiations. Once again, fans of the NFL are an afterthought, and the players are being used as pawns.

 

On another note, a rule was also passed prohibiting teams from changing the color of their grass. McKay noted with a smile, “We don’t want any red fields like at Eastern Washington.” To that end, anyone associated with the Falcons has little room to talk about the aesthetic qualities of a football team.

It should be noted...the Eagles won the FCS championship and are likely not at all concerned with McKay casting aspersions.

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