By Len Pasquarelli
The Sports Xchange
New Orleans -- It was, as one NFL assistant termed it, a "kinda" victory here on Tuesday for league special teams coaches.
On the final day of the annual NFL meetings, owners approved an amended proposal to kickoff rules, moving the origination point to the 35-yard line, but permitting clubs to continue to employ a two-man blocking wedge. In an unofficial survey last week by The Sports Xchange, many special teams coaches opposed at least some components of the proposed multi-faceted alterations to kickoffs.
Many of the changes, NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay had said, were proposed for safety reasons.
"I guess we 'kinda' got some things our way for a change," said one prominent NFC special teams coach. "At least, we don't have to go back to the board again on all the wedge stuff. But there are some things we're still going to have to deal with. They kind of giveth and they taketh away, right? That seems to be the story."
The biggest change is that the kickoff returns to the 35-yard line, where it was before the league moved it to the 30-yard line in 1994. Another key component of the original proposal that was approved: To reduce the length of the "running start" that kickoff coverage players have enjoyed, defenders must line up within five yards of the kickoff point.
Touchbacks will continue to result in the ball being placed at the 20-yard line. The committee had originally proposed the 25-yard line. So while there figure to be considerably more touchbacks -- McKay suggests a potential bump of 5-percent to 15-percent -- the ball won't be advanced five more yards because of it.
The competition committee had contended that the incidence of injuries on kickoffs was too great.
Perhaps the most notable boon to special teams coaches is that they will not have to dramatically alter return blueprints, because the two-man wedge remains. The committee had originally sought a ban on the two-man wedge.
For the 2009 season, the league outlawed wedges of more than two players. Special teams coaches and players adapted, as evidenced by the 41 combined returns for touchdowns in 2009-2010, the most ever since '94 in a two-year stretch. There were 23 kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2010, the second-most ever. Leon Washington of Seattle and Oakland's Jacoby Ford each had three returns for touchdowns.
"The big change," said McKay, "should come in where the kickoff team lines up ... That should make things safer."
Part of the reason is that, although McKay feels kickoffs will still be returned about 75 percent of the time, the general feeling is that there could be more touchbacks. That might especially be true early in the season, when kickers' legs are still fresh, and leg strength hasn't eroded.
Still, league officials maintained they are not attempting to eliminate kickoffs from the game altogether.
"It's still an exciting play, one of the most exciting in the game, you know?" NFL vice president Ray Anderson told The Sports Xchange. "If anything we're finding ways to keep it in the game."
Said one special teams coach: "That may be the case ... but I'll bet a paycheck right now we don't see 20-some (kickoff returns for) touchdowns in 2011."
Of course, McKay noted that, when the league altered the wedge rule for 2009, one special teams coach told him there would never be another touchdown return. "And he meant ever," McKay said.
There might be some irony to the fact McKay, the Atlanta Falcons' club president, was the front-man for the kickoff changes. The Falcons led the league during the 2010 regular season in kickoff return average, at 26.5 yards.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.