March 21, 2011
Update: NFL owners voted Tuesday to move kickoffs to the 35-yard-line, but left touchbacks remaining at the 20.
The NFL's competition committee is mulling over the idea of moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line back to the 35, where they were in 1994. It also proposes bringing touchbacks up to the 25.
Seventeen years ago, the NFL made that change because it wanted fewer touchbacks, more returns, and in theory, more excitement. Today, the notion is that it wants more touchbacks, fewer returns, and in theory, fewer injuries.
Two things come immediately to mind. First, it's hard to take anyone seriously when they insist that player safety is a priority while the league still wants an 18-game regular season.
Secondly, if you can look past the 18-game hypocrisy, the question of where we draw the line between protecting players and juicing up the game is an interesting one.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has his own thoughts on the matter and clearly isn't for it:
"It's a pretty complicated proposal," Belichick said. "I don't like the idea of eliminating the kickoff from the game. I think it's one of the most exciting plays in football. It looks like the competition committee is trying to eliminate that play. I don't know if that's really good for the game."
If this proposal were to pass, essentially what they're saying is that they're willing to sacrifice some excitement, some of what makes the game appealing to consumers, in exchange for fewer broken body parts. If that starts with kickoffs, where does it end? Sure, more touchbacks might give us fewer injuries, but so would a lot of things. Would this be the start of a trend that ends with players being ruled down when an opponent asks them politely to stop running?
Where is that line? What rule change is too far? At what point in the pursuit of safety is the nature of the game fundamentally altered?
My short answer: Not here. I remember when the change was made in 1994, and to tell you the truth, I don't remember any change at all in how much I enjoyed football games between '93 and '94. It happened, people adjusted, and football was pretty much the same.
I'm not saying it's inconsequential. Kick return studs like Devin Hester(notes) would indeed lose some of their potency (perhaps not coincidentally, the Bears are against the change), but it's not the kind of thing that's going to stop anyone from watching football. It's not that big of a change.
Devin Hester's talented enough that, even if he gets fewer chances to break off a touchdown return, he's still going to find a way to help make football awesome. As fans, we're not going to lose much here.
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