Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Dissenting Opinion on the New Kickoff Rule

The NFL has approved a new rule moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 and requiring coverage players to line up no more than five yards behind the tee, taking away the running start they usually have. The ostensible reason is player safety.

If the end result of the NFL's new kickoff rule is to reduce long kickoff returns, then yeah, I'll be pretty let down. As Bill Belichick said, kickoff returns are one of the most unpredictable, and therefore exciting, aspects of the game. Seattle's Week 3 win over San Diego was not "cheap" or "lucky" because it came through Leon Washington's return touchdowns; is not special teams a legitimate team unit unto itself?

Interestingly, the Seahawks were not one of the teams that voted against the new rule, despite how it might compromise Washington's value. Chicago was, but Devin Hester has not been returning kickoffs for years, only punts - and punts are unaffected by the rule change. (For the curious, the other five "nay" teams were Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.)

Many are rightfully saying that this development will result in a lot more touchbacks and fewer decisions to run the ball back, which is probably true. But Seattle fullback Michael Robinson has a different angle; he feels that the removal of a running start for the coverage team will reduce the speed and violence of front-line hits and allow for more return yardage on the returns that do occur. It will also turn kickoff returns into power plays instead of finesse plays, leading teams to compensate by using larger players. This in turn would make blocks easier, requiring kickers to work harder at keeping the ball away from even less stellar returners. If this bears out on the field, it might make kickoff returns more of a boom-or-bust event.

Although Robinson still feels that the changes are unnecessarily marshmallowing the game, the last part has another possible ramification. When we think of "coverage men" or "gunners", we usually think of the faster and smaller players, because getting downfield quickly is crucial in covering or defending kickoffs. Running backs, receivers, tight ends, corners, and linebackers get the most work here (but only the quicker linemen). It's often at these positions that you'll see teams bringing in spares for training camp, sifting for potential gunners. Such considerations have no doubt helped keep Ben Obomanu on Seattle's roster through two coaching changes. But with larger players becoming more important on kickoff returns now, and any potential speed advantage being nullified by lack of a running start, the value could shift towards larger and slower players. It could redefine "kickoff gunners" a little bit. (Or not. Who knows.)

Robinson's Twitter account is worth the occasional look. His blocking value on the field is also a bit underrated by Seattle fans, in my humble opinion, but that's for another day.


  1. I can also imagine kickers trying to get more hang time on their kicks, almost like punts, and trust their coverage to try and pin teams inside of their 20.

  2. the kickoff change could also add to the performance of accurate but weak kickers.(cough)Coutu

    Robinson is a GREAT special teams player, but his position could be improved with a more traditional FB. Do you keep him on the roster if only for ST? idk, I may. His ST is really, really good.

  3. His ST work in San Francisco was almost legendary. Lots of Bay Area fans were downright ticked that he was cut, and furious when we got him. One of those little satisfying stories I love.

  4. I think this is much ado about nothing, the kickoff was from the 35 till 1994 and the game was just fine. I was against the original move so am fine with it going back to the 35.