NEW ORLEANS -- Even while the NFL's labor pains keep coming at regular intervals, the most interesting debate expected here at the league's annual meeting this week centers on the rather dramatic change that has been proposed to the rules that govern kickoffs.
It may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle amid all the CBA chatter last week, but the NFL's competition committee is intent on doing some major restructuring to kickoffs, moving them from the 30 to the 35-yard line, making a touchback worth 25 yards rather than 20, disallowing even a two-man wedge block, and prohibiting any cover man from lining up more than five yards behind the kickoff line.
The head coaches I talked to Sunday were dubious, at best, regarding the new proposals, and some were outright hostile to the kickoff modifications. Then again, coaches are creatures of habit and historically lean toward being change adverse. No surprise there.
"Oh, God, no,'' said one NFC head coach, when I asked him if he liked the changes. "And look, I should be for it, coaching in the same conference as Devin Hester. Anything that limits the damage he could do I should probably be in favor of. But I'm not. It's not a little change. It changes the game too much. It's not a tweak. It's a significant change.''
Even competition committee chairman Rich McKay, Atlanta's team president, admits the kickoff would undergo "a pretty major change,'' and he expects a fair amount of pushback from the league's head coaches when he fully explains the reasoning for the proposal to them Monday, in advance of Tuesday's leaguewide vote.
But McKay and two other longtime competition committee members told me Sunday that in essence they could boil their presentation down to just two words: Player safety. In today's NFL climate, with the league focused like a laser on that front, that might be all the proposal needs to generate the momentum necessary to garner the 24 votes for passage.
The league basically has decided the kickoff is too dangerous, responsible for historically high injury rates, and so it wants to decrease the number of kickoff returns and increase the number of touchbacks. Fewer collisions on kickoffs should mean fewer injuries, the league reasons, and more touchbacks are the prescribed way to reduce damaging contact.
"Under the umbrella of player safety, it's hard to argue against it,'' Colts team president and competition committee member Bill Polian said. "The coaches will see what we're talking about in terms of injuries when we show them the tape [on Monday]. It's hide your eyes ugly. We're trying to limit the times you have that kind of hit in the game. You would hope the coaches see the injuries and understand we're doing it for the player safety issue, and that's the right reason.''
Player safety might lead to making the proposal something of a bullet-proof issue -- it's not a great time for anyone within the league to take a stance against safety initiatives -- but coaches and some general managers I talked to bemoaned the fact that the rules would potentially lessen the impact and value of three specialists on a given team: the kick return man, the kicker, whose unusually strong leg on kickoffs has been a field-position weapon, and the top kick cover man, whose skill set would get a little less necessary.
"It's going to turn even an average kicker into a guy who can boot it five yards deep into the end zone,'' one head coach said. "So if you've got a guy now who was doing that, he's not as much of a weapon with everyone kicking off from the 35.''
The Seahawks just re-signed return specialist Leon Washington to a new four-year contract, and now the new kickoff rules could blunt a good bit of his impact. The Jets aren't thought to be crazy about the rule proposals either, but at least their return man, Brad Smith, might be a free agent and hasn't yet been paid big money based on kickoff rules that might be leaving the game.
Several coaches pointed out that the kickoff return for a touchdown is one of the game's most exciting and game-changing plays, and the new rules would undoubtedly impact their frequency. To that, McKay says he has heard that song before.
"They'll adjust,'' he said. "They always adjust. When we took out the [three-man] wedge play [in 2009], people said you'll never have another kickoff return touchdown ever again. That's it. It's gone. And then we set a league record last season with 23 kickoff return touchdowns. Most ever. And don't forget, when we moved the kickoff back from the 35 to the 30 in 1994, kickers were still using three-inch tees and balls that weren't K balls (special balls used just on kicking plays). Now there are one-inch tees and K balls, so you're not going to get as many touchbacks as you think. We realize it's a significant change, but the injury numbers tell you you have to do something.''
Last year, 16.4 percent of all kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, and that number has risen in five of the past six NFL seasons. As recently as 2004, just 8.9 percent of kickoffs were touchbacks, so that number has nearly doubled in a six-year span, as teams searched for and found strong-legged kickers who were capable of reaching the end zone. Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff tied an NFL record with 40 touchbacks in 2010, with 89 percent of his kickoffs traveling at least 65 yards. You can do the math. Kickoff from the 35, Cundiff gives the Ravens plenty of leg to reach the end zone almost whenever he wants.
Two things are fairly apparent should the new rules be voted in: Teams won't be able to afford the roster luxury item of having a kicker just to handle kickoffs, since touchbacks could be much more common place; and the so-called "mortar'' kickoff might become more popular, with coaches opting to have their kickers almost lob the ball down inside the 10-yard line in an attempt to pin the opponent deep without giving up the free 25 yards that a touchback awards. That kind of unintended consequence could actually increase the level of violence (and thus injury) on kickoffs.
"They're saying that fewer returns equals fewer injuries, simple as that,'' one AFC head coach said. "But I'm not sure it's that simple. There are still going to be full-speed collisions on kickoffs. They may happen a bit further down the field now, but they're still going to happen plenty.''
As always, McKay said he is not a vote-counter and doesn't know if the kickoff proposal has enough support for passage the first time it has ever been proposed. But the way I read the tea leaves, the player safety element is such a hot-button issue that the proposal has a pretty good chance of becoming rule.
"I don't know if teams will have a real choice,'' one AFC general manager said. "When it's under the heading of player safety, you may not be able to touch it. I don't know if you can really be against that right now. It's part of the whole effort to make the game safer.''
Will the injury rates drop on kickoffs once the new rules are in place, or will the quality of the game suffer from more touchbacks and fewer returns? Time will tell on both fronts, of course. But as one head coach reminded me, the NFL once moved to increase the impact of the kickoff return, believing something was missing and needed.
"It's interesting, because I think they're doing it for the exact opposite effect of the last time they moved the kickoff line, from the 35 to the 30,'' he said. "At that point, they thought they were getting too many touchbacks and they wanted to reintroduce the kickoff return to the game. They wanted that play highlighted. I guess not any more.''