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New Kickoff Rules Bring Mixed Bag

Posted Mar 22, 2011

Kansas City's touchback numbers should increase, but is that gain worth fewer return attempts for Chiefs return men?

Theoretically, we should see fewer returns from Dexter McCluster, Javier Arenas or any other Chiefs player who might line up to receive kickoffs in 2011. That’s because, beginning next season, the amount of touchbacks should increase across the league.

Kickoffs are moving forward five yards to the 35-yard line. The proposed change was approved 26-6 by league ownership Tuesday afternoon at the NFL Annual Meeting in New Orleans, but only after modification. Proposals need 24 votes to pass.

The original proposal from the Competition Committee included the following changes, but met stiff resistance from some teams before middle ground was found.

1)    Move the kickoff line back to the 35-yard line from the 30

2)    Not allowing any member of the kickoff team other than the kicker to line up more than five yards from the kickoff line, meaning they would have to line up from the 30-yard line on a normal kickoff

3)    Moving the touchback on the kickoff from the 20-yard line to the 25

4)    Make the kickoff out of bounds penalty 25 yards from the kickoff line instead of 30, therefore the kickoff would still end up at the same place (the 40-yard line)

5)    Elimination of all forms of the wedge block, including the two-man wedge

Of the five proposed changes involving kickoffs, only #1, #2 and #4 will take effect in 2011. Touchbacks will continue to be placed on the 20-yard line and the two-man wedge remains a legal blocking technique.

When addressing the media in New Orleans, Committee Chairman Rich McKay indicated that he expects the amount of touchbacks to increase between five and 15 percent next season. This isn’t the first time that kickoffs will be placed on the 35, but the league had been kicking off from the 30 since 1994.

Last season, 416 of 2,539 kickoffs (16.4%) were downed for touchbacks. Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop finished under the league average last season, achieving a touchback on 10.5% (8 of 76) of his kicks.

That tally placed Succop 19th among NFL kickers.

Succop tied for 20th as a rookie in 2009, notching touchbacks on 10.6% (7 of 66) of his kickoffs that season. From his first two seasons as a pro, it appeared Succop was married to the 10-11% touchback range prior to the new rules being implemented.

Last year’s touchback leader, Billy Cundiff, sailed over 50% (40 of 79) of his kicks unreturnable into the end zone.

Considering Succop’s touchback percentage, the change appears to be a bit of a catch-22 for the Chiefs. While McCluster and company will receive less chances to break a game open, Kansas City’s kicking game could certainly benefit from moving the football forward five yards.

That’s not necessarily true.

Though Succop didn’t boom the ball like Cundiff last season, he effectively placed his kicks to put Kansas City’s kickoff unit in an advantageous position.

The Chiefs yielded just 20.2 yards per kickoff return last season to finish with the sixth-best mark in the NFL. Baltimore, on the other hand, allowed a league-worst 26.0 yards per return.

Will Kansas City be in a better position next year because of the new kickoff rules? It all depends on the weight of the sacrifice compared to the gain. Teams with subpar special teams players are likely to embrace the new rules more than some of the other teams.

It’s also possible that teams lacking a powerful foot, but who possess a reliable field goal kicker, fill that 53rd roster spot with a kickoff specialist instead of a player that excels on special teams coverage unit.

While the kicking game hasn’t changed as drastically as originally proposed, Tuesday’s rule re-write is still significant.

League ownership also passed a rule that will require a booth review of all scoring plays, while a proposal involving the protection of defenseless players will be revisited in the coming months. We previously outlined each of those proposals earlier this week.

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