The returns are coming back from coaches and players on the new kickoff rules, and nobody seems too happy about a system that has the kicking team doing so at its own 35-yard line instead of the 30, as had been done before. The touchback percentage more than doubled in the first week of the 2011 preseason over the 2010 regular season (16.4 percent to 33.8 percent), and the effects of that change have everyone wondering why a rule implemented in the name of player safety is having such an effect on game strategy. The Chicago Bears famously kicked off their first two times of the 2011 preseason against the Bills from the 30-yard line in direct defiance of the rule, and there are others willing to express their dissatisfaction with words instead of deeds.
When asked about the elimination of the kick return as a strategic tool, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick recently said that he was given some rather stark news about that from the league — that was the idea behind the new rule. "That's what they told us,'' Belichick said. "I'm not speaking for anybody else. That's what they told us, that they want to eliminate the play.''
As you might expect, a league spokesperson had a quick response to that. "That is not the goal. We are not aware of anyone representing the NFL that has made that statement.''
Belichick then elaborated on his statement. "You've got to think about it. If, instead of covering 60 kickoffs in a year, you think you're only going to be covering 30, then is that coverage player as important? If you're going to be returning 30 instead of 60 … then maybe you put more of a priority on your punt returner than your kickoff returner, just as an example.''
But according to former NFL VP of officiating and current FOX Sports analyst Mike Pereira, coaches were their own worst enemies when it came to the modification of the rule. Pereira told ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Thursday morning that the original plan was to offset the shorter kickoff field by putting all touchbacks out at the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
"To me, that really would have put some strategy back in the kickoff, if it went to the 25," Pereira said. "[Teams] would have tried to get the ball to come down at the goal line, and stop the returner shorter than the 25. But the coaches objected to that, and [the NFL] wanted to pass that rule in some form, and the coaches wanted to have [touchbacks] go to the 20, where they always were. They gladly heeded the coaches' request, and it passed at that point.
"I understand everything about player safety, and I'm for everything about player safety, but this [rule] is really going to change the look of the game. This is going to eliminate a huge number of kickoff returns, and it's also going to adversely affect some teams more than others. You've got to look at the Bears and the Browns and the Bills — you've got Cribbs and you've got Brad Smith. It's not a balanced rule change when it comes across the board to the teams that are affected."
Pereira was then asked if the rule could be changed back, which is where things got a bit squirrely.
"I don't think so, and here's the issue — when you pass something for player safety reasons only, and you then go back on that, you're almost sending a message to the players that you don't care about player safety."
I was with Pereira until that last statement. If the rule grossly affects kickoff value, and has a distinctly negative impact on the game, reversing or modifying the rule simply says, "Hey, we overreacted to this in the first place, and now, we're just trying to even it out."
If what Pereira says is true, NFL coaches should look in the mirror when searching for scapegoats. And those same coaches should have the ability to back up and undo their mistakes. Perhaps even before an entire season in which a rule everyone seems to dislike could run rampant through a pretty decent little sport.