Sunday slant: Kick the kickoff idea to curb

NFL owners this week will consider changing the rules on kickoffs to encourage more touchbacks. Safety should be a priority, but there are better ways to deal with it and still keep the entertainment value.

Sometimes, less is more. That's not a concept that the NFL is too familiar with, given its continuous and rapid ascent in popularity – a reliable domination of the American sporting public.

But, with all the things that could be changed, it's time to leave well enough alone with some of the rules. However, that doesn't look like it's going to happen with some of the changes that were suggested by the competition committee last week and will be up for a vote Tuesday that would require three-quarters to approve. Safety should be a concern, as witnessed by the line of alumni battling various ailments, from joint problems to cognitive issues.

That said, the consideration to move the kickoff line up to the 35-yard line and therefore encourage more touchbacks is the wrong move. While coaches continue to bemoan the lack of roster space to adequately fill out an effective game-day depth chart, moving the kickoff line to the 35-yard line will only have them thinking about adding another specialist to boom the ball out of the back of the end zone nearly every time; in response to that, the committee is suggesting that the offense then be spotted the ball at the 25-yard line on touchbacks.

The kickoff return can be one of the most exciting plays in the game, but it could be on its way to virtual extinction.

"Today, the average start line is about the 27, maybe 27.6 or 27.7, and so what we are saying is if you do have the ability to create a touchback, you are not gaining any great advantage by putting them back at the 20," competition committee chairman Rich McKay said. "We are moving it to the 25. We think that there is a balance for the return team in the sense that we are moving the people that cover the kicks, they are moving up almost 15 yards from where they start. So, instead of getting that running start they once had, they won't have that ability. They will only be able to get a 5-yard running start instead of a 15-yard running start. We want to see how it plays itself out. We can't really tell you with great certainty where the average start line will be, but we think it will be closer to what it has been historically than you think the change might bring."

That's not the only change the committee is suggesting for kickoffs. Two years after limiting "wedges" on kickoff returns to no more than two players, they are looking at doing away with them altogether. Frankly, that shouldn't have a major impact on the return game, and neither will the elimination of players on the kicking team only getting a 5-yard running start before the kickoff. Those two changes will only cause a mild refining of how special-teams coordinators handle alignments, but they, too, were suggested with safety in mind.

"There are just too many concussions and head injuries that come on kickoffs ... to a greater extent than on other plays," McKay said. "We think (the changes) will help make it safer."

Most fans will remember the temporary paralysis Buffalo's Kevin Everett suffered in 2007, but if the committee is looking to take all the hits out of kickoff returns, then what's the purpose of even kicking off? If they are hoping for a much high percentage of touchbacks, why not scrap it altogether?

Mind you, that's not the thinking from this armchair. While I can agree with stricter enforcement of penalties and even suspensions of defenders who go head-hunting over the middle on defenseless receivers – despite the kickback from even offensive players – you can't outlaw hitting in a contact sport. There are times to save the players from themselves and getting rid of the "dirty" helmet-hunting players with suspensions is the way to go, but good, clean, hard hits are part of the game – even on kickoffs.

Most return men we've surveyed believe punt returns is where the greater risk is. The returner doesn't have the benefit of 10 yards of upfield running to survey what's coming at him and from where.

"Safety is good, and we're all for it, but they keep coming back to (special teams coaches) to make all the adjustments," one NFC assistant told The Sports Xchange. "You don't want to come across as a bad guy, someone who doesn't worry about (the safety) aspect, but sometimes you can't help but feel that we're the only ones they're asking to change."

Last year, there were 23 kickoffs returned for touchdowns in 2010, the second most (there were 25 in 2007) since the NFL moved the kickoff to the 30-yard line in 1994, and 41 touchdowns in 2009-10, the most in an two-year period since '94, according to TSX. The 2010 total was almost 60 percent higher than the average (14.6 touchdowns) for the 17 years since the kickoff point changed.

In a league looking for scoring and excitement, eliminating the kickoff return by encouraging more touchbacks isn't the answer. Safety should be a priority, but the league doesn't need to take the Percy Harvins and Devin Hesters out of the equation and minimize the entertainment and edge-of-the-seat drama that kickoff returns provide.

It's time to kick that competition-committee idea right back where it came from.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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