Diminishing Returns

The NFL Competition Committee voted yesterday to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. This will affect Chicago, and its top return game, more than most other teams.

Since 1893, the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans has resided in the French Quarter, just a few miles from the tail end of the Mississippi River. It's a grand edifice with a block-long canopy of golden columns and chandeliers at its front. Yet the regal atmosphere did not match that of many of its guests, one of which, amongst a throng of reporters, was seething.

"You just wonder how did we get to this point?" Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "First off, I can't believe we're really talking about it, the most exciting play in football. You would think we would want to keep that in."

His comments were in response to the NFL owner's proposal to change the kickoff point from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line – a proposal that passed 26-6.

Lovie Smith
Leon Halip/Getty

"We would work as hard as we could to try to make it safer, but to eliminate that to me is just kind of tearing up the fiber of the game a little bit," Smith said. "Yeah, we have a great returner. But that's a big part of the game. Our fans are probably more interested in coming there to see Devin Hester running a ball back as opposed to seeing a kicker kick it out of the end zone with no action."

The NFL has changed the rule under the guise of player safety. Owners apparently feel more touchbacks will result in less injury for players. On one hand it makes sense, as kickoffs involve players sprinting 50 yards before crashing into each other. On the other hand, kickoffs aren't all that different from a regular football play. Coverage men are coached to get downfield quickly but then slow up, find the ball carrier, shed the block and make the tackle.

Sure, big hits happen on kickoffs all the time, and players do get hurt. But the NFL Competition Committee failed to present any statistics or medical analysis to back up its claim. They presented nothing that demonstrated how much more dangerous kickoffs are than a regular football play. They just "feel" this would make things safer.

"This is a rule 100 percent based on player safety," Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons and head of the Competition Committee, said while referring to the kickoff proposal. "We've seen higher rates of injuries than we are comfortable with, and we're trying to remedy it."

It all sounds great, but let's not be fooled. This rule change – like nearly every move the NFL owners make – is about money.

Roger Goodell and the owners want an 18-game schedule so they can bring in more profit. In order to sell this idea, they have to prove player safety is at the forefront of all their doings. That way, when the union cites the enhanced risk of injury by forcing players to endure two extra games a season, the NFL can refer back to all its recent mandates and rule changes, thus showing its efforts to keep the players safe.

"At some point I think players have to understand that there are certain risks that are involved," said NFL Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, "and if you decide that you want to go out and play football, then you've got to understand that part of that means you're going to break some bones and you may have some head injuries. But if you try to eliminate all of those things, then we're no longer playing football."

This seems to be the prevailing sentiment among current players, ex-players, coaches, ex-coaches and fans alike. The only group that doesn't feel this way is the owners.

Incentive aside, this rule change will greatly affect the Bears, who annually have one of the top return units in the league. Most believe the new kickoff rule will result in at least 25 percent more touchbacks, with some predicting as high as 50 percent. I tend to lean toward the latter, as kickers are much stronger than they were in 1994, when the kickoff line was moved from the 35 to the 30.

Back then NFL owners were worried about the diminishing number of kickoff returns. They felt too many touchbacks were compromising one of the most exciting plays in the game. Those players crashed into each other just as hard then as they do now, yet no one was worried about player safety.

Originally, the number of kickoff returns spiked dramatically in 1994, but by 1998 that number was steadily dropping. The NFL then instituted a rule stating kickers could no longer break in their own footballs and had to use "K" balls for kickoffs. The return percentage again spiked and the owners were happy.

In essence, every move the league has made since 1974, when they originally relocated the kickoff line from the 40 to the 35, has been to create more kickoff returns. Yet, with an 18-game schedule on the horizon, they want fewer returns.

As a result, the Bears will almost assuredly not re-sign free agent Danieal Manning, whose value was tied greatly to his abilities on kickoff returns. It also means the odds of Devin Hester returning another kick for a touchdown just fell into the slim-to-none range.

Devin Hester
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

"They're going too far. They're changing the whole fun of the game," Hester said Tuesday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "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."

Last season, the Bears had the best average starting field position in the league. It was one of the team's biggest assets and it was just destroyed by the Competition Committee. It's akin to telling teams with great quarterbacks that signal callers must play with one arm tied behind their backs. A team like the Packers – whose owner voted for this current rule change – wouldn't be too happy about the league taking away its best weapon, just like it did to Chicago.

The most disturbing aspect of this whole situation is the owners actually discussed changing the rule so the ball is placed on the 25-yard line after touchdowns and field goals. They actually considered this. In 2011.

I give it 10 years before they implement that rule. But by then, they'll most likely be lobbying for a 20-game schedule.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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