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Kickoff change means more touchbacks, less electricity

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL just adopted a rules change it says will make the game better, and I'm all for that. But Devin Hester won't be. Neither will Josh Cribbs ... or Leon Washington ... or Eric Weems ... or Stefan Logan.

Too bad. This is one decision players can't appeal.

By voting 26-6 to move kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line, the NFL just reduced the impact that elite returners like Hester, Cribbs, Washington, Weems and Logan can have on ballgames.

I'm serious. Go back to the last time the league kicked off from the 35 for evidence, and tell me what happened. That would be 1993, and there were four returns for touchdowns. That provoked the league to move kickoffs back 5 yards to the 30, and -- presto, just like that -- there were 16 TDs, a 20 percent spike in returns (up to 1,842 from 1,341) and draw your own conclusions.

The NFL has, but it believes there's a greater good here, and that's a reduction in injuries that, literally, are crippling the game. So they went to an area where hits are violent, numerous and sometimes unavoidable and tried to minimize them by moving kickoffs forward 5 yards to reduce the number of returns -- with league officials estimating a five-to-15 percent drop.

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OK, I get it. Fewer returns mean less contact. But I also get that it'll have an impact on someone like Devin Hester, the NFL's premier kick returner, who also had three punt returns for touchdowns last season. I guarantee it will have an impact on the Chicago Bears, too, and not a good one. Hester was their most effective weapon, averaging 35.6 yards per try, and reducing his returns reduces his role.

Sorry, but that's not good for Hester or his team.

"The kickoff return is the most exciting play in football," said Chicago coach Lovie Smith. "It's been a big part of our game for a long time. I'm all for player safety, but I think that's taking a drastic step. There are other ways we can make the game safer. Moving the ball back to the 35 would not necessarily help the injuries that much; maybe (it will) make it harder for our return guys."

Maybe? There's no question it will. There were a zillion touchbacks in the league last season, with Billy Cundiff hammering a league-best 40 -- or more than half of his 79 kickoffs. Move him forward 5 yards, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what happens.

Nothing, with the ball taken to the 20.

"It will swing the balance of play dramatically to the kickoff team," said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coach, "and the kickoff team will have all the options: They will kick a touchback if they think they can, which they'll be more capable of doing, plus they will be covering from the 35 with more hang time. So it's going to be tougher to protect and defend the returner, and (it's going to be more difficult) to create a return."

The solution: Find a kicker who can drive the ball 70 yards. Where clubs once scouted returners who made a difference now they can start scouting kickers who can launch balls into or out of the end zone.

The average kickoff last season landed at the 6.5-yard line, so proponents of the new rule insist this isn't much of a change. But tell that to Hester. It's a big change, and you'll see just how big once guys like Cundiff and Sebastian Janikowski and David Akers catapult kickoffs.

"We shouldn't make them the focal point of the kickoff return," said Smith, "but more emphasis will go to the guys kicking the ball out of the end zone, and that's just not good for the game."

That's one man's perspective, and it's hard to argue. Of course, not everyone has a Devin Hester, so it's hard to argue with his opponents, too -- especially if you live in San Diego, where every returner last season looked like Hester to the Chargers.

"You could hear the voice of teams that have returners loudly in the sessions," said Seattle's Pete Carroll. "It will affect it some. The number that is significant is that the average kick landed at the 6 or 7 yard line. So if you move it up five yards the average kick still is going to land in the field of play.

"But they're still going to be a higher percentage of touchbacks. Plus, the defensive guys are going to benefit from putting the ball in the end zone, which will put it on the 20. It's a give-and-take both ways. However, the idea is that the kicker is going to become more valuable."

And guys like Hester and Cribbs are going to become less.

"I think there's a chance to minimize their impact," said Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, "or it maximizes it because the better returner will really be the better returner now. You know what I mean? To have a great returner it may put him in play more."

Huh? Forget it. Lewis plays in the same division as Cribbs, so you know where he's coming from.

The bottom line is that player safety trumps all, so it doesn't matter what's in the best interests of Hester, Cribbs or Leon Washington. What matters is what's in the best interests of the NFL, and the league is convinced anything that addresses player safety is.

But stay tuned. Coaches are clever and flexible, and the new rule could lead to more "pooch" kicks, which could lead to returners getting blown up. The league isn't buying, believing its move to keep the two-man wedge alive on returns will protect returners from unnecessary injuries.

All I know is that for now, at least, the NFL will give you more Billy Cundiff and less Devin Hester, and I understand why. But I doubt that Devin Hester does.

"I don't believe (the return) is taken out of the game," said Atlanta general manager Rich McKay. "I do believe it will change. Everybody in the league forever has liked this play. It's not that we're sensitive to injuries; we see the real numbers. And those numbers say, 'You know what? This play needs some modification.' "

It just got it.

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