By Laurence Holmes–
If you talk to players about the NFL game, they all will tell you that the kickoff is the most dangerous play in the game. You have 11 angry men getting a full head of steam and a headstart upwards of 50 yards to come down and make a play. It’s understandable with the attention being paid to player safety that kickoffs need to be studied, but did the owners over-reached in moving kickoffs back to the 35?
I say “back” because that’s where kickoffs took place until the rule changed in 1994.
The NFL in an attempt to make the kickoff safer also added that coverage teams can only lineup 5 yards behind the ball. A change that Bears TE and pending free agent, Dez Clark thinks doesn’t make much of a difference.
“They can enforce that from the 30, but guys are at max speed within 10-15 yards anyway,” Clark said.
This rule definitely affects the Bears. Lovie Smith doesn’t just pay lip service to the idea of a “3-phase team,” he believes in it. Bears players who don’t start are expected to be standouts on Special Teams. The reason Smith believes in it because he’s study the concept of field position and a strong ST unit can bolster a weaker offense and set up a strong defense.
Smith has a lot of faith in Dave Toub, who is one of the best (if not the best) ST Coordinator in the game. The proof is on the field: Devin Hester is the greatest kick-returner of all-time. When Hester was focusing more on receiving, Danieal Manning led the league in kickoff return average. Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers are both in the top 3 in blocked FG. Robbie Gould is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. There’s a history of success and this new rule will challenge the Bears to get more creative. Toub has a history of adaptation, so you can bet he will figure out a way to get the ball into the returners’ hands.
With moving the kickoff up, teams will have a much easier time eliminating Devin Hester from the game. Just about every kicker in the NFL will see an increase in their touchback percentage. Some teams will mess around with the idea of kicking high and trying to pen teams inside the 10, but that carries risk of putting the ball in Hester or Manning’s hand. Speaking of risk, I wonder if Hester will be given more rope to take to a ball kicked deep into the endzone out…
If you’re going up against the Bears, you have a lot less to worry about in the kickoff game. Instead of angling kicks and flirting with kicking it out of bounds and giving the Bears offense the ball on the 40, teams will just choose to kick it away.
When I caught up with Rashied Davis, he wasn’t too happy about the new rule.
“The new rule change on kickoff return sucks!” Davis said. “Just another case of owners doing what they want to do without taking into account what anyone else (coaches, players and fans) thinks.”
Davis who is a big part of the Bears return team, thinks it will affect fan enjoyment.
“It seems like an attempt to take away one of the most exciting plays of the game.” Davis said.
While the rule changes are taking place, there is still labor unrest. I talked with one NFC player (who didn’t want to be named) that thinks the negotiations, not the rule changes need to be front and center.
“(screw) a kickoff rule. Where are our priorities at?”
If you’d like to delve into how more touchback can change a game, I stumbled upon a really interesting breakdown on AdvancedNFLStats.com. Check it out: http://www.advancednflstats.com/2009/09/value-of-touchback.html