The Chicago Bears were one of six NFL teams that reportedly voted against the new rule moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line of the team doing the kicking. The rule, which moves the ball up from the 30-yard line and should cause more touchbacks and fewer exciting returns, was implemented by the league's competition committee at the owners meetings in March as a move to improve player safety. The thought was that those exciting returns also involve too many high-speed collisions, but the Bears weren't buying it.
In their Saturday preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills at Chicago's Soldier Field, the Bears refused to accept the new rule, and instead lined up their first two kickoffs at their 30, as had been in the past. Apparently, the officials on site didn't catch it, because no penalties were called and it took a call from vice president of officiating Carl Johnson to "put a stop to it," according to the Twitter account of Johnson's predecessor, current FOX Sports analyst Mike Pereira.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who's had return teams among the league's best for a number of years, seemed unaffected by the violations and any potential fallout. In other words, it wasn't a mistake.
"[Bears kicker] Robbie Gould … we can put it on the 35 and he can kick it out each time,'' Smith said. ''We're not really getting a good evaluation of what we can do coverage-wise on some of our players. That's what we were trying to do with it.''
Last year, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, the Bears ranked first in average starting drive position — their average drive began just after their own 33-yard line. The Houston Texans were the worst team in this category; their average drive started just past their own 25-yard line. With almost a first-down's difference between best and worst, and given Chicago's recent history of great return men from Devin Hester to Danieal Manning to Johnny Knox (the picture above shows Knox taking a kick 70 yards in that very same Bills game), you can understand why Smith and the Bears aren't pleased about giving up an advantage they have obviously built their personnel decisions around.
The decision to move the ball up would actually help the Bears' kick coverage teams — FO notes that Chicago ranked 24th in average drive start allowed, allowing opponents to start at about their own 30-yard line. The Atlanta Falcons backed their opponents up to about the 24 on kicks last season, so there's the team that should be upset that the skill element has been taken out of the equation.
The rule seems like an overreaction built to take fun and excitement out of the game, and there have already been fairly serious effects. In the first preseason week alone, according to Paul Domowitch of Philly.com, 43 of 127 kickoffs, or 33.8 percent, were touchbacks. Throughout the 2010 season, the touchback rate was 16.4 percent.
It doesn't take a math major to understand the effect on the game, and why the Bears want to go rogue on this rule. Will they continue to do so, and what might the penalties be?
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- Lovie Smith