NFL 2011 Rule Changes: Why Kickoff Returns Are Dead

Alexander M. SmithContributor IMarch 22, 2011

Speedsters like Chicago's Devin Hester will not be given many opportunities to change the game anymore.
Speedsters like Chicago's Devin Hester will not be given many opportunities to change the game anymore.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The art of the kickoff return is dead. During the next NFL season, when an announcer yells, "Goodbye!" on a kickoff, it will mean the ball is sailing out of the end zone, not that Devin Hester or Brad Smith is taking a return to the house for six game-changing points.

The reason for this is a simple rule change intended to promote player safety: Kickoffs will now be taken from the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Doesn't seem like much? Look at it this way: Just about every NFL kicker can nail a kickoff 70 yards (the old requirement to reach the end zone line), but only a select few can consistently kick it 75 or 80 yards.

This means that in the past, the kickers who could barely reach the end zone were taught to put more hang time on their kicks and place them in the corners, thus reducing the distance of their kicks. Now, those same guys will be able to put their kicks five yards deep with average or worse hang time. What return man is going to take the ball from five yards deep with guys sprinting at him from five yards closer than last year?

Safety in the NFL is obviously becoming a larger priority, and it makes sense to cut back on dangerous situations like kickoff returns, but this is not necessarily a step in the right direction.  

According to ESPN's John Clayton, "With the input of coaches, the committee decided to allow return teams to have a two-man wedge. The committee proposal suggested the elimination of the two-man wedge, but coaches argued that would make it harder to have quality returns."

Quality returns? There won't be any returns. Kicking has long been a misunderstood skill, and the casual fan might not care about the ins and outs of the position, but some Eagles fan is going to get tired of cannon-legged Cowboys kicker David Buehler kicking the ball through the uprights from his own side of the field all game.

Kickoff returns are dangerous plays, and no one knows how much they will decrease in the next season, but I'll tell you one thing: Instead of changing the rules, they might as well just do away with the process altogether and give the offense the ball at the 20-yard line.

A speedy return man has always been able to swing the momentum after a score, but you will not be seeing much of this anymore. America's game just got a lot more predictable.