The NFL’s Competition Committee is proposing rules changes for next season (if there is one) that would drastically alter the nature of special teams.One proposal would move the kicking team five yards closer on kickoffs and give the receiving team five more yards for a touchback.
If it passes, teams would kickoff from the 35 and the ball would be placed at the 25 after a touchback.
In addition, wedge blocking (when two guys stand shoulder-to-shoulder to create a wall for the return man to run behind) would be eliminated and tacklers would only be allowed a five-yard running start, instead of the 10 or 15 they get today.
Remember, these are just suggestions at this point. Rules changes must be approved by a full vote of all the owners (who meet next week.) However, the intent is obvious — reduce the number and speed of kickoff returns — with an endgame that seems all but inevitable: Eliminate kickoffs altogether.
According to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, 28% of all kickoffs are between 65-69 yards. Those kicks will now land in the endzone instead of the five-yard line. Add that to the 10% that are already touchbacks and you’re looking at more than a third of all kickoff not being returned.
Plus: With the defence starting 5-yards closer and an extra five-yards guaranteed for kneeling, there is a huge disincentive to bring out any kicks that land in the endzone. The number of touchbacks will skyrocket.
The 25-yard touchback may give kicking team an incentive to kick short and force a runback. But with no wedge blocking and a shorter distance to cover, it will be come more like punt coverage: Bloop kicks that draw no returns. But most teams will still prefer a guaranteed touchback to the possibility of a long return.
As the number of kickoffs drops, that part of special teams will become less and less important. Teams will start to adjust rosters to have fewer gunners and the need for specialist kickers will disappear. The kickoff will become de-emphasised, allowing the league more room to restrict it even further, and the cycle continues until, one day, someone asks why they even bother anymore. It’s the most dangerous part of a dangerous game and keeping it around suddenly won’t make sense anymore.
Then again, as Schatz also points out … eliminating kickoffs would deprive the NFL of half its TV timeouts. No matter how many injuries they cause, that’s too much commercial revenue to throw away.
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