BEREA — The chorus of naysayers regarding the NFL’s new kickoff rule includes Josh Cribbs, who tweeted that moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line from the 30 made last weekend’s preseason opener “a scrimmage.”
“I’m entitled to my opinion,” the Cleveland Browns return man said Wednesday after practice.
His opinion seems to be shared by many around the NFL. Bill Belichick went on record saying the NFL told him it wants to eliminate the kickoff from the game entirely (not true, the league said). Baltimore coach John Harbaugh and special teams coach Jerry Rosburg said the change takes away too much of the game. And the Chicago Bears thought so little of the rule that they kicked off from the 30 anyway last weekend — until the league got ahold of the officials and said the Bears had to kick from the 35.
The argument against the switch? That with the growing strength of NFL kickers, kicking off from the 35 makes touchbacks too frequent.
“There will always be (rules) tweaks,” said Cribbs, who holds the NFL record for career kickoff return TDs with eight. “But (these) are rules changes that change the game as a whole.”
The argument for the change? Kickoffs are dangerous, and limiting returns eliminates dangerous collisions that produce concussions.
The result: More touchbacks, and fewer returns — and the virtual elimination of one of the most exciting plays in football.
In the first weekend of preseason, nearly one in three kickoffs resulted in a touchback, compared to less than one in six all last season, as 76 percent of kickoffs reached the end zone (106 of 140), compared to 42 percent (63 of 150) a year ago.
Cribbs said the increased touchbacks will result in returners getting impatient and ending up with some short returns.
“There will be a lot of inside-the-20 tackles this year,” he said. “A lot of returners will get tired of taking a knee in the end zone and try to bring it out, and that’s when there will be a lot of inside-the-20 tackles.”
At one time kickoffs were from the 40. But kickers got so strong, the league changed the rule to promote the return and moved kickoffs back to the 35. Kickers adjusted, so another rules change was made (not many pro leagues change rules every year like the NFL) and the kickoff was moved to the 30. At varying times, the NFL lowered the kicking tee from three inches to one and added the “K” (kicking) ball. All made the kicker’s job more difficult.
But as player safety concerns grew, the NFL’s Competition Committee decided this offseason to move the kickoff back to the 35. Saints coach Sean Payton said the kickoff return was “the highest risk of injury play.” Rich McKay, co-chair of the Competition Committee, said player safety always will take precedence.
“If that’s what the issue was, there are no stats to back it up,” Cribbs said. “The intentions are good, but the stats aren’t there.”
Cribbs’ forte — and money-making ability — is his returns. He and every good returner in the league, including Seattle’s Leon Washington and Chicago’s Devin Hester, complained about the new rule. Cribbs still is complaining.
“You’re taking (the game) out of returners’ hands,” he said.
Maybe. What’s not noticed too much about the rule change is something that might actually promote returns.
In past years the players on the coverage teams could take a running start by lining up as far behind the kicker as they wanted. That running start allowed them to get down the field faster, which in theory promoted collisions.
With the new rule, coverage units must keep one hand or foot on the 30 as the kicker starts his approach to the ball. This limits the running start to 5 yards and means coverage units may not be as far downfield when the ball is caught. So even if kickers hang the ball longer to slow returns, which Cribbs said he expects, a guy might be willing to return a kick 5 yards deep in the end zone.
The league is walking a fine line between preserving one of the game’s most exciting plays and promoting player safety. Every year players seem to adjust to one rules change that, in preseason at least, causes a ruckus.
“I want somebody to come chase my record,” Cribbs said. “I want to chase it as well. I feel like rules like (this) will take it out of proportion. At the same time it’s an obstacle to get over and I’m looking forward to getting over it.”