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New proposal for touchbacks may greatly affect kickoffs, returners

NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL competition committee's controversial proposal to change the rules governing kickoffs remained a work in progress Monday, with the chance that any new rule will continue to place the ball at the 20-yard line on touchbacks, rather than the 25, as first considered.

Competition committee chairman Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons team president, said no change to the kickoff rule proposal has been made yet, but that his committee would meet again Monday night and Tuesday morning to review possible alterations to the proposal. A league source said leaving touchbacks at the 20 was a distinct compromise possibility, with the kickoff line being moved from the 30 to the 35 as originally proposed. The league is proposing the rule change in the name of player safety on kickoffs, which historically has the game's highest injury rate.

NFL head coaches met the kickoff rule proposal with dissatisfaction and suggestions for modification on Monday when the competition committee presented it to the full ownership at the league's annual meeting. Most of the disagreement centered around the provision that would reward the receiving team with another five yards of field position for a touchback, sources said. McKay said he did expect a vote to be taken on a kickoff proposal of some sort Tuesday before the league meeting ends in mid-afternoon.

"We had a good discussion in there (with the coaches) and they had some good recommendations and ideas,'' said competition committee member Stephen Jones, a Dallas Cowboys executive vice president. "As a committee, we're going to consider those overnight. There's no pride of ownership here on our part, and we obviously want something that's best for the game at the end of the day. The coaches did a nice job of thinking about this and coming up with some suggestions. I think you'll see them incorporated in the rule change when it's all said and done. Hopefully we'll have something everybody buys into.''

As first proposed, the major restructuring would include moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line (the previous spot until 1994), making a touchback worth 25 yards rather than 20, disallowing a wedge block of any sort, and prohibiting any cover man from lining up more than five yards behind the kickoff line.

But coaches voiced their objections to lessening the impact and value of three specialists on a given team: The kick returner, 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. While the league feels fewer kickoff returns and more touchbacks would drop the injury rate, the committee seems open to tweaking their proposal before it is voted upon. Twenty-four of the league's 32 teams would have to vote to approve the rule change before it is enacted.

"Obviously, everyone has respect for the safety aspect,'' Jones said. "It's just a matter of finding the best way to address it, and striking a balance. How much do we improve it (kickoff proposal)? Can we improve it? And if (not), maybe we leave it alone. But we'll look at it.''

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, a longtime special teams coach with the Eagles (1998-2007), said that some coaches think there's a possibility for even more injuries on kickoffs with touchbacks being worth 25 yards, with teams trying to kick the ball inside the 10-yard line and taking their chances in coverage.

"Are you really going to help the injury thing?'' Harbaugh said. "They want fewer kickoff returns because it's a dangerous play. It's an exciting play, too. But on the injury issue, you probably truth them in trying to make the game safer. But you might be putting in a rule (that causes) more injuries. Because if you put the ball at the 20 (on touchbacks), coaches will probably kick the ball into the end zone most of the time, and you'll have more touchbacks. You still change the play a little bit, but you will have more touchbacks and you should have fewer injuries.''

McKay said his committee wanted to further study the effect on field position for moving the kickoff line to the 35 and leaving touchbacks at the 20, while also blocking cover men from lining up and getting a running start no further back than the 30.

"It was definitely brought up today as far as leaving touchbacks at the 20,'' McKay said. "Our concern was you'd be affecting field position. You'd have the percentage of touchbacks go up, but we might be giving the return game a little better chance that we think, when you also move the line to where they can start (covering the kickoff) to the 30.

"But we got a lot of good feedback from the coaches and the GMs. I don't blame any of them for saying, 'Wow, this is a big change.' It is a proposed big change. I don't blame anyone for pushing back. But our focus in this one was dealing with safety issues, and it'll be an interesting discussion tomorrow.''

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