It’s just five yards, right?
Even the smallest changes can make a world of difference. At least, that’s the fear of many fans surrounding the NFL’s recent decision to move the placement of kickoffs forward five yards to the 35-yard line.
Stronger legs, paired with shorter kicking distances, are likely to increase the ratio of touchbacks. More touchbacks could limit opportunities to witness some of football’s most exciting plays.
“The five-yard change to the line-up point is going to be interesting to see,” said Chiefs Head Coach Todd Haley, who understands the Competition Committee’s thought process behind the change.
“It was clear, that with the number of injuries that the league was seeing on kickoffs, something needed to be done to help better protect the players, or at least try to,” Haley said. “Once that was clear to me, then that is what you have to try to do.”
Though owners hold the final say, coaches and General Managers play a major role in approving all rule-altering proposals. Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis sits on the Competition Committee and head coaches and GMs debate the merits of each proposal with one another before engaging ownership in the discussion. After a period of debate and discussion, a formal vote is held when appropriate.
Voting takes place with all parties together and proposed changes need at least 24 of 32 votes to pass.
The end game saw a modified version of the committee’s original proposal pass, pushing kickoffs five yards forward and prohibiting coverage players from lining up more than five yards behind the football.
“There is only one way to know the results of the change, and that’s to get data on it,” Haley said. “Once that happens, we’ll be able to see if there is a reduction of injuries and also make sure that it’s not changing our great game. Kickoffs have been part of the game forever, and it’s a great play.”
The ruling is perceived to impact the Chiefs, along with the Bears and Seahawks, more than most teams. Both Chicago and Seattle have elite return men in Devin Hester and Leon Washington, while Kansas City used both draft picks in last year’s second-round to bolster the club’s return game.
“Dexter (McCluster) and Javier (Arenas) were both taken for their ability to play offense and defense first,” said Haley. “They will both continue to help us in the return game and get opportunities going forward. I can’t see this ruling having changed anything we would have done last season as a group.”
While Haley acknowledges the amount of touchbacks is likely to increase, he doesn’t feel that its impact will be dramatic. He also believes that the new rules may actually create opportunity.
“The kickoff return is not going to be eliminated – at least I don’t think so,” Haley said. “There’s another thing to consider as well. If you’re a team that’s kicking a bunch of touchbacks, you’re not getting a lot of practice at covering and tackling. All of a sudden, when the wind is blowing, it’s sloppy or a guy misses the kick, you get one run back for a touchdown on you. Who knows?”
“I believe that getting less practice at covering the kicks is a true factor. The only real looks you get on that play are live looks in a game and if guys are relaxing, thinking that it’s a touchback or that a guy is going to keep it in (the end zone), all of a sudden he brings it out…I’ll be interested to see if there is an effect there.”
The Chiefs are also one of numerous teams that have recently added high-flying mortar kicks to their kickoff strategy. Placing the football five-yards closer to the end zone increases the probability of hanging those kicks inside the five or 10-yard line with less risk for a return past the 20-yard line.
Another factor involved with the change in kickoff positioning is the onside kick.
Last season, the Chiefs attempted the league’s second-most onside kicks (four), trailing only Denver (five). Kicking off from the 35-yard line would save a little field position on failed attempts.
“I think that onside kicks will definitely go up,” Haley said. “For the risk takers, there’s just a little bit less risk involved.”
When the Chiefs resume on-field activities, an increased emphasis on mortar-kick technique and a mindset to cover all kicks through the end zone, regardless of location, appear to be in order.
“Kickoffs are a great play for the game and have been a great in the game for a long, long time,” Haley said. “It’s still going to be here.”