Remember the glory days, where kickers like Billy Cundiff gave their teams a distinct edge on kickoffs and electric returners like Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs could turn a game around in the blink of an eye?
I sure hope those days aren’t over.
It’s far too early to say with certainty that the NFL’s new kickoff rules - which move kicks up five yards to the 35-yard line - are going to dramatically decrease the importance of a kicker who could rack up touchbacks when kicking from the 30, or a playmaker who can turn a simple kickoff into seven points.
But early indications (at least ones from the Ravens’ preseason opener against the Eagles Thursday night) are that the new rules, implemented this offseason, might slowly be taking kickoffs out of the game.
Check this out: there were seven kickoffs in the Ravens-Eagles game the other night. Six of those seven resulted in touchbacks, a number of which saw the kickoff returner frustratingly put his head down and walk away as the ball bounced all the way out the back of the end zone.
The one kick that was returned came when Ravens rookie wide receiver Tandon Doss - a guy trying to make the roster - took a chance on running out a kick two yards deep into the end zone. The gamble paid off, as Doss made his way out to the Baltimore 24-yard line, but in a regular season game, where the returner isn’t trying to impress the coaching staff and earn a job, that play might have gone for a touchback, as well.
The touchback frenzy took place in other games around the league as well, as six of the seven kickoffs in the Redskins-Steelers game last night resulted in a returner taking a knee.
Of course, there will also be games like last night’s Falcons-Dolphins contest, in which all 11 kickoffs were run back. (Apparently, those kickers need to hit the gym.) But, it sure seems like Cundiff, for example, barely needs to try at this point in order to have his kicks result in touchbacks.
That means fewer chances for guys like Hester, Cribbs and others to show off the kind of breathtaking speed and moves that have made kickoffs the most exciting play in the game. I’m not expecting to see a clip of Hester taking a knee in the end zone atop SportsCenter’s “Top-10 Plays” anytime soon.
Now, I understand that the rationale for moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line was to improve player safety and limit injuries caused when guys run full speed into blockers after having sprinted 60 yards downfield.
But, it seemed to me that player safety on kickoffs was dramatically improved two years ago, when the league made it illegal for teams to use more than a two-man blocking wedge (meaning returning teams couldn’t have more than two blockers within two yards of each other).
The three- and four-man wedges were the most dangerous aspect of kickoffs, as players on the kicking team would be told to sprint down and “blow up” the wedge by taking out as many blockers as possible. Those wedges are now gone.
Football is a violent sport, and players are going to get injured. I’m all for improving the safety of those risking their bodies out there on Sundays, but if the new rules compromise the game, we might need to re-think about their impact on the on-field product.
I hope that we don’t see many games like the one we saw on Thursday, in which kickoffs effectively become a non-factor. If we do, I’ll be interested in getting reactions from the players, the ones whose safety is at question.