Change has come to the NFL this season in the guise of kickoffs being moved from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. So far, it seems that nobody is pleased with the results. Just two weeks into the preseason, objections have begun to pour in from football clubs around the league.
Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns is unhappy with the changes, and plans to carry the ball out no matter how deep into the end zone it is booted. The majority of Detroit Lions players have publicly weighed in unfavorably regarding the new rule.
It’s not just the players who are speaking out. Mike Holmgren, president of the Cleveland Browns, agrees with Josh Cribbs. Coaches Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens are worried that their star return players will be negatively affected by the decision. Bill Belichick, outspoken coach of the New England Patriots, has gone as far as to publicly proclaim that the NFL owners are working towards eliminating kickoffs all together.
These are just a few examples of the flood of complaints that have rolled in since the rule was officially changed. The Chicago Bears even took their dissatisfaction a step further, choosing to rebel by ignoring the new kickoff rule during their first preseason game until NFL officials were able to put a stop to their antics.
So if the new kickoff rule is ruining the game of football, what monsters enacted it in the first place?
That would be the NFL owners, who took advantage of their spare time during the lockout to adjust the rules for what they say are safety purposes. To understand the reasoning behind those changes, one must first understand that kickoffs in the NFL have not always been this lenient.
Kickoff rules have evolved throughout the years, and those changes have always been accompanied with their fair share of controversy. Before 1974, kickoffs were performed from the 40-yard line. The NFL voted to move kickoffs back by five yards during the 1974 season in order to decrease the number of touchbacks.
The 35-yard line was the official placement for all kickoffs for 20 years, until 1994, when the NFL voted to move the ball back another five yards to the 30-yard line. At the same time, the maximum height of kickoff tees was lowered from three inches to one inch. Again, the justification was that these rule changes would increase the number of kickoff returns throughout the season.
It is clear that player safety during kickoff returns has been on the minds of the NFL owners for a long time as they have tried to strike a balance between the excitement of the kickoff return and the well-being of the men on the field. Making adjustments to how players are allowed to react—no blocking below the waist, no more than two men in a wedge—has not brought the danger level down enough to satisfy the owners.
Whether those concerns are legitimate or not is a matter of opinion, as data about injuries accrued during kickoff returns is kept close to the chest within the NFL organization. Despite Bill Belichick’s claims, however, it is hard to believe the theory that the NFL is trying to eliminate kickoffs all together. Given that the lockout was largely the result of a revenue dispute between the players and the owners, it seems questionable that the owners would take steps towards getting rid of a play that is immediately preceded and followed by a commercial break.
Indeed, it seems more likely that the 35-yard kickoff rule is a compromise between the less-than-exciting 40-yard kickoffs of old and the more dangerous 30-yard kickoffs to which we have become accustomed.
The rule change may be big news right now, but it won’t ruin the game of football. Instead, we will see special teams coaches forced to use their creativity to design plays that leverage the strengths of their players against the weaknesses of their opponents. Strategy will become a little bit more important, but returners will still have their opportunities to shine.
Regardless of whether the new rule is a benefit or a drawback, all of the buzz is rather moot. If coaches and players would stop complaining long enough to actually think, they would realize that there is a flaw in the new kickoff rule that can be exploited to put the ball back on the 30-yard line legally: Simply have a player commit a penalty that will be enforced on the kickoff to give the kicking team that five-yard cushion as a “punishment.”