Five yards in nothing to scoff at; meaningless as the change to the kickoff rules might sound, the idea has quickly sparked dissension amongst NFL coaches and place-kickers, forcing arguments about NFL Expert picks to take a back seat.
Coaches have been claiming for some time now that moving touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line would backfire, increasing the number of returns and injuries because placekickers would be compelled to kick shorter. This is the very opposite of the result the NFL is looking to bring about.
You rarely see so many coaches from different teams coming together to make their voices heard about an issue, yet that is exactly what they are doing now and this cross-team solidarity might allow them to actually reach NFL executives, the coaches now working to give the league more suitable alternatives to their plans.
Coach Mike Zimmer (Minnesota Vikings) doesn’t think the NFL could possibly enforce the rule changes after understanding the strategic complications they will cause, and he isn’t the only one.
John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens) thinks that the league should just go ahead and eliminate the kickoff rather than make such complicated changes, especially when it could make the game far less exciting.
Coach Ben Kotwica (Washington Redskins) doubts that the changes will achieve the results expected while Dustin Hopkins from the Redskins actually sounded excited about the experimentation that coaches will be forced to implement in response.
But can fewer returns actually result in fewer injuries? Since the decision to move the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line (2011), kickoff returns have shrunk while touchbacks have increased from an estimated 16.4 percent of all kickoffs in 2010 to 56 percent. It is much easier for strong-legged kickers to get to the end zone.
It is worth noting that the number of injuries on returns between 2015 and 2015 increased, with kickoff returns contributing notably to the injury rates. According to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, reducing kickoff returns could reduce the injury rates.
The statistics are difficult to ignore, though coaches seem ready to do just that, many fanatical voices suggesting that they wouldn’t cede those five extra years if they could avoid it. Considering their position, they understand the realities of the injury statistics; yet they seem to believe that the impact of the league’s changes on games isn’t worth the results the NFL is trying to achieve.
For Harbaugh, anyone suggesting that intentional short kickoffs would solve the problems many coaches are complaining about is choosing to ignore the high risk of the ball going out of bounds, essentially leading to a 15-yard penalty.
The ball becomes difficult to control once it begins to bounce, and this isn’t even taking into account the impact of weather conditions which can make manipulating the ball difficult even for the most skilled of players. The slightest mistake could lead to disaster.
Blandino has met with coaches to generate solutions to some of their worries, such as shortening the touchback approach to two or three steps to ensure maximum consistency. This is the only way to keep the ball inside the 20; though, considering the talent and ability required to pull this off, the success of the leagues’ changes will depend heavily on the preseason trial-and-error period during which the different teams will try to adapt to the new situation. The potential for disaster is quite large.
People like Harbaugh haven’t been impressed by these scenarios, many of which depend heavily on incredible skill and conducive weather conditions. More importantly, the idea of seeing most kickoffs downed for touchbacks doesn’t appeal to anyone.
Yet Harbaugh isn’t completely unreasonable, realizing that, without the proper guidance, rather than simply making changes, the NFL could choose to eliminate the kickoff.
It was with this thought in mind that Blandino entered a conference call with more than thirty coaches to brainstorm and implement a new set of rules that would satisfy everyone.
Executives in the league clearly know the injury history of the kickoff. Considering their obligation to portray the NFL as an organization determined to protect players, some people think that the die has been cast and the kickoff is on its way out.
For the moment, the NFL seems content to make the kickoff unexciting and, hopefully, safer. There is no telling what the future holds.