Posted by: mdegeorge | March 23, 2011

Kicking off another round of ownership hypocrisy

General Robert R. Neyland’s 7 Maxims of Football are taken as divine law in certain parts of the country. No. 6 on that list reads, “Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.”

General Neyland’s words weren’t heeded by the NFL owners Tuesday, who voted to alter the rules for kickoffs, all but eliminating their significance in the game.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

The owners’ changes move the kickoff up from the 30-yard-line to the 35, giving big legs like Sebastian Janikowski and Phil Dawson a fighting chance to split the uprights on a regular basis. To compensate the suddenly disadvantaged returners, kick coverage was limited to a five-yard run up before the line of scrimmage (down from 10 to 15), and a proposal to eliminate all wedge-blocking, even two-man wedges, being rejected.

The new rules have unsurprisingly met with criticism from the players, who I’m sure aren’t terribly crazy about the owners to being with. Cleveland Browns return man Josh Cribbs didn’t hide his disdain, tweeting:

NFL rule changes are BS… U not making the game safer u messing a great sport, trynna hide behind safety just to add 2 games…smh. … This means it will be touchbacks all over the place… Essentially taking returners out of the game…injuries will still take place, then what move it up again, or eliminate it all together…

New England Patriots Bill Belichick also blasted the idea at the league’s annual meeting:

I don’t like the idea of eliminating the kickoff from the game. I think it’s one of the most exciting plays in football. It looks like the competition committee is trying to eliminate that play. I don’t know if that’s really good for the game.

And returnman extraordinaire Devin Hester is unshockingly nonplussed by the matter, using a local radio show to rail on the new league-imposed obstacles he faces:

They’re going too far. They’re changing the whole fun of the game. Fans come out — especially in Chicago — to see returns. That’s one of the key assets to the team. Fans [like] our big returns. You take that out of the game, not only do they kick it out of bounds when it’s time to punt the ball, now you get the disadvantage on kickoffs. We felt we were guaranteed [a chance] on kickoff returns and now you’re taking that away, it’s like you’re taking the whole return game out of the picture.

Cribbs hit on the underlying irony to the whole situation and the ridiculous transparency of the olive branch the owners appear to be extending to the players. The changes are being done in the name of player safety, the same players the owners are trying to preserve so they’ll be fresher to run out there an extra two times each season. The concern of kickoff safety will seem even hollower when the players are trotted out there against their wills for Weeks 18 and 19, games played by more practice squad players than we would like to consider.

Injuries aside, the alleviation of the kickoff threat hurts the overall excitement of the game. As Hester says, players like he and Cribbs can be game-changers. Eliminating them from the game—and rest assured, those stars have been all but eliminated now that touchbacks are more attainable—would be tantamount to taking away double moves from wide receivers or cut backs from running backs. After all, how many knee ligaments, of running backs and defenders alike, have been severed by sudden juke moves?

The medical side of the ledger is still somewhat undecided, though at this point in the pernicious progression of concussions, any reduction in the frequency of head injuries is a plus.

One aspect of the change that might be flying under the radar is the increased prevalence of onside kicks. With the ball now at the 35, teams who recover the kicks are no longer automatically in field goal range. From the gambling team’s perspective, a failure put the ball right around the 50. Kicking the ball deep and out-of-bounds sets it at their own 40. Doesn’t the 10-yard difference justify increasing risk?

The owners’ intentions might be in the right place. But given the current dynamic between them and the players, it’s difficult to see any decisions they levy as anything but disingenuous and profit-seeking. The excitement of the kickoff and that first collision of the afternoon is the epitome of the “gladiator sport”, as Cribbs describes it.

If you want to take something like that away, do it with genuine concern in mind. Don’t steal kickoffs from Peter so you can push Paul through games 17 and 18.

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Responses

  1. […] creates an interesting dilemma. I’m not in accord with the NFL’s new kick-off rules and not ok with the NHL’s lack of action. So how’s going to find […]

  2. […] entity in the game behind late hits and James Harrison. Rule changes during the lockout, ones I wasn’t terribly fond of, were put in place to limit the intensity of frontal impacts incurred during kick coverage while […]


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