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.