By Daniel I. Dorfman–
I wish I could get a little more worked up about the changes in the NFL kickoff rule in the way Bears management has been. As much as anyone I get excited over the prospect of Devin Hester launching a lengthy return. But while it is too far to say this is much ado about nothing, let’s put the rule change in perspective and what should be really troubling is the energy Bears management is using to complain about it.
On a 26-6 vote, the NFL owners yesterday moved kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 yard line in the hopes of limiting injuries. Not surprisingly, the six no votes came from teams who have terrific return threats such as the Bears. There are predictions the touchback rate could reach nearly 40 percent, possibly doubling the amount in place right now. So if there is a 2011 season (and that is a hardly a certainty due to the lockout), don’t look for Hester or Danieal Manning to be the same factors they were in 2010. Lovie Smith made no secret of his displeasure over the rule change.
OK, there is no doubt Hester is a great potential weapon on kickoffs. In 2011, he returned to that role midseason, Hester averaged 35.6 yards per return, easily placing him first for the NFL. While Hester has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2007, of the five kickoff returns he had for 40 + yards in 2010, the Bears scored three touchdowns and two field goals. Also, teams do kick away from Hester at times and thus the Bears gain better field position.
On first glance it is easy to see why the Bears are upset, but this rule change is not going to prevent a winning season, and if it did, it would signify much larger problems.
I hate to throw cold water on Solider Field, even though the turf can use all the help it can get. But there are plenty of reasons to put this change into its proper context.
First, the new rules have nothing to do with punts. It was on punts where the 2010 version of Hester reminded us why Jeff Joniak’s use of the word “ridiculous” now has a different meaning for Bear fans. After nondescript years in 2008 and 2009, Hester ran back three punts for touchdowns last year and he will continue to have far more opportunities to return punts than kickoffs.
Next, even with Hester and Manning supposedly setting the table, the Bears still finished 21st in the league in points. Oh and by the way, how many kickoff and punts did Green Bay return for touchdowns last year? Zero. And we all know how their season turned out.
After initial protests, Hester indicated he would adjust. He Tweeted “Hey hey fans don’t get mad about the new rule, my run back just going 2 be over a 100 yards now. I hate them 90 something yards anyway!!!!!!”
Most disconcerting about the Bears reaction to the rule change is the way they seem to think it will completely thwart their offensive attack. Special teams are exactly that: special. It is not supposed to be the focal point of an offense. There should not be an offensive mentality that special teams are going to deliver points in every game. No matter how good of an attack a team has on kickoff and punt returns, its offense and defense is far more important as to how close it can get to a Super Bowl.
What would be encouraging is seeing the brain trust at Halas Hall figuring out the greater problems the team has an offense. There is an offensive line that showed promise but still has a long way to go; a lack of a number one wide receiver (something that Hester has not turned out to be) and Jay Cutler remains a work in progress.
If the Bears figure out these main offensive issues, the five yard change on kickoffs will fade into memory.
Do you agree with Daniel? Post your comments below.
Daniel I. Dorfman is a local freelance writer who has written and reported for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe among many other nationally prominent broadcast, online and print media organizations. He is also a researcher for 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DanDorfman To read more of Daniel’s blogs click here.