In stadiums across the country last week, NFL kickers approached teed-up footballs and launched them skyward. Would-be tacklers sprinted down the field as blockers aligned themselves. Kickoff returners settled under descending footballs.
And then — not much. The ball landed on the turf and bounced through the end zone or the returner made the catch and dropped to a knee for a touchback, and everyone waited for the next play to begin at the 20-yard line.
Touchbacks were up, dramatically and predictably, in the first week of the preseason after NFL owners voted during the offseason to move the kickoff five yards closer to the opposite end zone as a safety measure for what might be football’s most dangerous play.
Not all players, coaches and fans are pleased with the early returns on the new kickoff rules. But league officials are holding their ground, saying the competitive considerations are secondary to players’ health and safety.
“I don’t know if we’ll evaluate it that way,” Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said Tuesday of the number of touchbacks. “I think the evaluation of the rule will be based on the injury numbers and the effect it has on injuries.”
In the first round of preseason games this year, 31.9 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. That’s up from 18.5 percent in the opening week of the preseason last year and 17 percent during the 2010 regular season, once onside kicks and kicks at the end of halves are discounted.
McKay said he expects the touchback percentage to decline as weather conditions worsen later in the year. But he also said that reducing the number of kickoff returns was part of the intent of the new set of rules.
“The number one thing was to try to shorten the field and shorten the running by tacklers before hits are made,” he said in a telephone interview. “The second part is the potential for a fewer number of kickoffs returned. It’s not for the elimination of kickoff returns. That’s for certain. It’s not to take kickoff returns out of the game. That’s for certain. But this was not a quality-of-the-game rule change. This was a safety rule change.”
But Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said at a news conference over the weekend that the touchbacks on kickoffs during his team’s preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles were “just a yawner.”
“Every one was a touchback. And when it wasn’t a touchback, it was because we chose not to make it a touchback or they chose not to make it a touchback,” said Harbaugh, a former special teams coach for the Eagles. “Actually in this week’s game, we are going to have to just punch it down there because we need to train our guys to cover kicks. We’re not going to go through the whole season kicking touchbacks.”
Josh Cribbs, the standout returner for the Cleveland Browns, predicted last week on Twitter that the rule would be changed before next season because “without that part of the return game it might as well be a scrimmage.”
Former NFL kickoff returner Qadry Ismail said the new kickoff rule “will have an effect. . . . It’s a pivotal part of the game and a pivotal part of field position.” But he and others said its effects won’t be as widespread as some are predicting.
“There are some imaginative special teams coaches that are out there,” said Ismail, who had 189 kickoff returns in a 10-season NFL career with five teams.
“They’re going to find a way to make it work for their return game. And there are return guys like Devin Hester and Joshua Cribbs. How are you going to hold them back? But there are also a lot of special teams coaches who aren’t as imaginative. There are returners who aren’t as good.”
Many people in the sport regard the kickoff as football’s most perilous play, one that involves numerous high-speed collisions that can cause catastrophic injuries. Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills suffered what his doctors described as a life-threatening spinal cord injury while making a tackle on a kickoff in a 2007 game. Everett survived and later regained the ability to walk after he was initially paralyzed from the neck down.
Despite the new rule, last week still featured a handful of long kickoff returns. The San Diego Chargers’ Bryan Walters scored a touchdown on a 103-yard return against the Seattle Seahawks. There also were kickoff returns of 84 and 70 yards, and a 58-yarder by the Washington Redskins’ Brandon Banks.
Banks began his return six yards deep in his own end zone, noted Brian Mitchell, the former star returner for the Redskins, Eagles and New York Giants. He pointed out that the rules are now the same as they were before 1994, when the kickoff was moved from the 35-yard line to the 30.
“It was like that before, and I still had success. Mel Gray still had success,” Mitchell said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”
The owners voted, 26-6, in March to move the kickoff to the 35-yard line. They also approved a rule that limits tacklers to a five-yard running start before the ball is kicked. The NFL previously had banned more than two blockers from lining up shoulder to shoulder on kickoffs to form a “wedge.”
“I do get that there are safety concerns,” Ismail said this week. “You’ve got guys running down there like kamikazes. I know they’ve done away with the three-man wedges and the four-man wedges, and that’s good.”