The NFL owners meetings got back to some of the mundane business of the league, which has been overshadowed by the lockout of players and pending court case to be heard in a Minnesota courtroom. Among the big orders of business Tuesday was to come to a decision on the league's kickoff rules, which has become a surprisingly hot topic of debate with coaches falling on both sides of the issue, including Bill Belichick of the Patriots, who said Monday he remains flatly against any changes to the current rules.
Despite that, the NFL voted to change the rules, moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line but keeping touchbacks at the 20-yard line (a previous proposal called for those to be marked at the 25).
Another kicking-related proposals by the competition committee that failed was the elimination of the two-man wedge.
The league is citing player safety as the impetus for the rules change, but there are few plays in the NFL that are more exciting and able to change momentum faster than a kickoff return for a touchdown. Unless they come at the beginning of a half, they happen on the heels of the other team scoring and building their own momentum.
Rules changes in 2009 eliminated the three-man wedge in the return game as a preventive measure to avoid more injuries. However, that change, which was thought to be a hindrance to kickoff returns, didn't have the effect if that was indeed the intent. In 2010, 23 kickoffs were returned for touchdowns – the second highest single-season total in league history.
The numbers point to significantly more touchbacks if approved. Last year, 37 percent of kickoffs from the 30-yard line went to the end zone line or farther (a total of 927 kicks). Of those, more than half (509) were returned and the others (416) were touchbacks. Under the new rules, kickers like Sebastian Janikowski, Michael Koenen and Billy Cundiff will almost routinely be able to kick the ball out of the end zone and kickoffs that would come down a yard or two into the end zone previously would likely be six or seven yards deep and not returned.
The NFL is taking significant steps to reduce the number of injuries and have clearly identified kickoffs as a point of emphasis that has a disproportionate number of injuries.
The players that might benefit most if the changes are approved are kickers like Ryan Longwell that don't have the leg from the 30-yard line to drive kicks into the end zone. Adding five yards to their kicks will be the equivalent of the Fountain of Youth. That might make several veterans with great accuracy but diminishing leg strength like Longwell and Adam Vinatieri more valuable to the teams that employ them.
However, the end result may just as easily be more teams opting to go with a second kicker, which the Vikings toyed with when they signed Rhys Lloyd during the 2010 offseason.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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