By Adam Ondo
The NFL has made a few changes to the rules this year, with the intention of making the game safer — namely moving the kickoff line five yards up. While I normally agree with rules in the name of safety, the shift has ruined an important part of the game for both players and fans.
The Dallas Cowboys’ two failed kickoff returns and decision to not return the ball near the end of Sunday’s game exposed the problem with the new rule. Coaches will not want to risk what could be great runs — or great failures — when down points at the end of games. Because of this, the implications for talented returners like the Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester are grim. Hester is not a great receiver, so if he isn’t able to return the ball for 20 plus yards and a touchdown, he does not have much to offer his team.
Though he did well against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, I wouldn’t say that Hester is going to have an easy time.
Some people may say I’m overreacting, because there were a couple kick offs returned for touchdowns in week one, but there will always be opportunities for talented players to make plays. I do not think that there will be nearly as many returns this year, though. Just look at the Chiefs-Bills game, where the Chiefs returned only one kick off in a 41 point defeat.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith underscored the problem with the new rule when he told the Chicago Sun-Times that kicker Robbie Gould could “put it on the 35 and … kick it out each time.” It will be hard to see many mind-boggling kickoff returns for great yardage if the majority of kickers can simply kick the ball behind the end zone and out of play.
The new rule change, which puts greater pressure on kick returners, actually lowers the standards for kickers, allowing mediocre kickers to compete with exceptional ones. The Ravens’ Billy Cundiff, who averages a touchback for every 5.6 kick offs, tied the NFL record with 40 touchbacks last year. Now that every kicker will be able to kick scores of touchbacks, however, Cundiff appears more similar in value to the Rams’ Josh Brown who, though he had just five touchbacks off of 73 kick offs last year, had two touchbacks off of four kick offs in week 1 (no doubt thanks, in part, to the rule change).
The Cowboys’ David Buehler, a kick off specialist, has averaged a touchback for every 3.1 kick offs, but his accuracy is not great. How much longer will he last in Dallas if touchbacks are easier to come by and Buehler retains sub-par accuracy?
This new rule change will remove many kickoff returns from the game, meaning that they will now be like extra point plays. They will be worthless, time-consuming plays that everyone will already know the outcome to half of the time. It would save time to just take kick offs out of the game completely — that or repeal the new policy.