Safety is at the forefront of college football discussions (well, that and this whole playoff thing), and the NCAA is implementing changes that they believe will help improve the overall safety of its athletes. These changes, which stray from the “traditional” game, are small yet still somewhat radical. They won’t drastically alter the landscape of the game, but they will confuse a casual viewer or two million next fall.
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel has spoken, and while they’ve also made modifications to blocking as well as protocol when an athlete loses their head gear, clearly the focus is on the most dangerous play in the game.
In 2012, all kickoffs will be moved forward five yards to the 35-yard line. On top of this, the kicking team will be required to line up no further than 5 yards behind the ball, which will give them less of a running start. This, of course, is set up to trigger more touchbacks and less runbacks, while decreasing the impact on these potential collisions. It’s the same rules you and your brother implemented when you duct-taped yourselves in pillows in the backyard, only slightly more enforced and organized.
The cherry on top is that touchbacks will be more valuable as well. Touchbacks on kickoffs (as well as punts after safeties) will be moved to the 25-yard line. This extra five yards is intended to entice a team to perhaps take touchbacks more often, to again, eliminate potential contact on the field. Although Dana Holgorsen’s offensive attack scoffs at this extra five yards, this philosophy change will no doubt be a fixture conversation in special teams meetings this spring.
The NFL instituted a similar rule change last fall where they moved the kickoffs up, and the touchback percentage more than doubled for the 2011-2012 NFL season. These booming kickoffs through the uprights brought plenty of mock outrage from special team enthusiasts, as well as the “traditional” football fans that embrace these plays for the big hits and big plays that they regularly produce.
With less distance to kick it into and out of the end zone and more incentives to take a knee, the touchback percentage in college football will most certainly increase starting in September. However, college kicking isn’t even in the same stratosphere as those that kick a ball off a tee for a living, so this likely won’t have the same game-altering impact that it did on Sundays.
It will indeed have an impact, though, and the meat-headed outrage for the first September kick that sails out of the back of the end zone is going to be loud and clear. Again, if you’ve seen the pathetic state of college kicking, you know this won’t be a regular occurrence, but a booming kick should do the job, and surface every now and then.
This rule change will most certainly reward a powerful leg, and perhaps this will become more of a focus going forward. As if the gut-wrenching, last-minute misses we’ve witnessed over the past few seasons weren’t enough. This change will emphasize the not-so-attractive aspect of special teams, kicking, and de-emphasize the sexy returns.
This potential strategic change isn’t necessarily a popular topic of conversation. The average fan doesn’t care about that; he wants his collisions frequent and the game the way it’s always been. He wants to see the 100-yard runbacks, just like he always has. His Saturdays are sacred, and he’ll be damned if you turn his favorite game into the touchback fest that is the NFL! His words, not mine.
The NCAA has done plenty to warrant criticism over the past few years and beyond, but trying to improve player safety, even if they’re simply following the NFL’s script, is not something we should question.
I understand the potential displeasure regarding these changes, and the fact that one of the game’s most exciting plays may be limited because of these new rules. The intent here, however, is tremendous and we should view it as such. Worrying about how "our" viewing experience and enjoyment might change is missing the issue at hand.
Will the game change? Absolutely. But this is something we might want to get used to. Tradition, when it comes to safety and rules, is something that could be drastically altered in the years ahead. If the idea of moving the kickoffs already has you agitated, then the studies regarding head injuries and the long-term damage done to a football player’s brain could lambaste the outer walls of your sport’s mind.
We’re nowhere close to having a definitive grasp of these long-term effects, but we do know that limiting players’ situational risks could improve the safety for the players on the field. The NCAA clearly understands this, and these first steps are indeed just first steps.