Schalter: NFL Whiffs On Kick Return Rules

Zack Follett (AP Photo)

The league's instituted changes won't better the game.

No sooner did I blog about the league changing the rules to the detriment of the game, than the NFL changed some rules. Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay, on moving the kickoff position to the 35-yard-line:

"This proposal is not one that if you were asking the committee to vote on it from a tactical standpoint and for the betterment of the game. I believe the committee would be 0-7 against."

So, when considering the betterment of the game, this change is an overwhelming failure; it makes the game demonstrably worse. What on Earth could they be thinking?

"From a safety issue, 7-0 in favor, because I think this gives us an opportunity to shorten the field and to lessen the impacts, if you will, that are happening on a play that is a popular play, historical play, been a part of our game forever and a play that we want to keep in the game. And so, this was our attempt at that."
This I understand very well. Even back in Tecmo Super Bowl, injuries occurred at a higher rate on kickoff returns than on plays from scrimmage. I remember the manual explicitly pointed this out! Of course, a more recent example would be our own Zack Follett, who suffered a very scary season- (possibly career-) ending neck injury on a kickoff return. What did Follett have to say about rule change?

"Change to the kickoff rules! HOW BORING! This is coming from the one who got hurt"

So, everyone thinks the rule change will be bad. Everyone thinks kickoff returns will be steeply reduced by this rule change. The Competition Committee, though, hopes it will reduce injuries—and of course, I support that. The cynic in me chirps that the league is doing this to "prove" their commitment to player safety during negotiations—but any real step towards reducing head and neck trauma has to be lauded. So, I'll laud it.

But what will the effect on the game be? Let's look at all of the originally proposed changes:

  • Move kickoffs from the 30-yard line back to the 35, where it was prior to 1994.
  • Keep the coverage team within five yards of the ball (no more 15-yard running starts).
  • Change touchbacks to place the ball on the 25-yard line.
  • Eliminate the two-man wedge, just one year after eliminating three-man wedges.n

It's undeniable that the move back to the 35 will result in more touchbacks. Per Pro Football Focus, only one kicker averaged kickoffs past the goal line, but 19 would have under the new rules. However, touchbacks shouldn't return to pre-1994 levels. For starters, the ‘94 changes also lowered the kicking tees to one inch—meaning kickers could no longer get underneath a three-inch tee and pop the ball up for five-second-plus hang times. Further, the NFL has since introduced the "K" ball, which prevents kickers from doing any of the extensive modifications they used to do for balls reserved for kicks.

I'm not a special teams coach, so I can't tell you how much different it will be for coverage teams, with just a five-yard runup. It certainly seems like they'll be hitting the 35-yard-line after just a couple steps instead of at full stride, but how much of a reprieve will that grant the returner? Will it be enough to return a kick out of the end zone? To me, though, the most intriguing possibilities are the ones created by the rules they didn't adopt.

With touchbacks on the 20, coaches have every incentive to try and boot it into the endzone. If you have a Billy Cundiff, you can eliminate the other team's return game. Functionally, you'll be placing the ball on the 20 every single time. But moving the touchbacks up to the 25 would have given more coaches pause. A well-executed sideline kickoff is likely to prevent a return beyond the 25, so coaches would be disincentivized to order their kicker to boot it as far as possible.

Meanwhile, anytime a gifted returner touches the ball, big things can happen.

Last season, there was a lot -— well, not a lot, but a little—of hue and cry over the elimination of the three- and four-man wedge; the kick return technique with origins in the leather-helmet days. So, what happened? Special Teams coordinators innovated. They stacked two-man wedges, and they drew up return plays that drew blockers from one side of the field to the other. What was the result? Long kick returns actually went up. Again, Rich McKay:

"The story I would tell you, and I'm not speaking out of school because I'm not going to tell you who it was, but I did have a special teams coach that I know pretty well call me when the elimination of the three-man wedge came in and he called me to tell me that he did not think there would be another kickoff return for a touchdown in the league. Ever. I think this year there were 23, I think it's the second most ever. So one thing I know about those guys, they're bright guys, they'll find ways to return, they'll continue to innovate as they have and I think the play will still remain an exciting and integral part of our game. It's just simply in our opinion a play that we need to try to find a way make safer. That's the intent."

Honestly, I'm not mourning the death of the kick return -— I'm mourning the return game that would have been if the NFL had adopted the full proposal. Kickers with a short field, but trying not to get a touchback, and the return team can't make a wedge the coverage team can't get a running start. It would have been like the cat-and-mouse game offensive and defensive coordinators play. Instead of everyone returning behind a wedge, and everyone trying to bust the wedge, you'd have coordinators drawing up whole new 10-man return formations, whole new plays designed to create seams, to create paths, to misdirect.

Further, it would all play out a little more slowly—instead of maniacs all flying around as fast as possible, there'd be a craft and technique involved. The difference in value between a linebacker who's forced to play special teams, and a special teamer would be much greater. From what I can tell, if all four proposals had been adopted, it would have reemphasized the return game, and special teams in general, as the "third phase of the game." Kick returns would have been both safer, and more fun to watch. Instead, we're just going to get more touchbacks.

About The Author
Ty Schalter is a professional geek and family man. He regularly converts his undying fandom into words and numbers both for RoarReport.com, and his Detroit Lions blog, "The Lions in Winter."

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