New kickoff rules getting an overwhelming thumbs-down

A couple days after the Ravens' preseason opener against the Eagles, a game in which we saw six touchbacks on seven kickoffs, I wrote that I was - how should I say this? - less than pleased with the NFL's new kickoff rules.

Head coach John Harbaugh subsequently said that he, also, wasn't a fan of the offseason rule change, which pushed kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35. While the rule was added to try and improve player safety, it also makes it significantly easier for teams to pound the ball through the back of the end zone, and force the opposing team to start at the 20-yard line.

I'm sure it was my initial blog on the issue which convinced Harbaugh to feel the way he does. I bet that's how it happened.

This week, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg got his first chance to weigh in on the topic after seeing the rules in action Thursday, and as you might imagine, the lack of returns frustrated a guy who gets paid to draw up big plays on special teams.

David_Reed-tall.jpg"We're losing too much football," Rosburg said. "Going into the game, I didn't like the rule change, but I understood the reason for it and I respect the reason for it. At the same time, that play is a very valuable play in football. It changes games. It turns field position. Turnovers are involved, and I think it's going to have a profound effect on the way football is played if it's just a 'tee it up and kick it to the 20.'"

Rosburg commented that it was noticeably quieter in the stadium during kickoffs Thursday than he remembered it being while kickoffs were ongoing in previous years, and joked that instead of watching yet another touchback, fans might have been spending their time heading to the concession stands.

I'd sure say a plate of nachos is worth missing another returner taking a knee in the end zone.

Rosburg also said that he won't be calling on kicker Billy Cundiff to deliver more touchbacks this Friday against the Chiefs; the Ravens will go into Friday's game looking to experiment and see if a higher, shorter kick will back teams deeper into their own territory.

"We want to explore that in the preseason," Rosburg said. "We're really not sure about the geometry yet because it's different than it has been. We think we're going to be on top of the return team, quite quickly, with our kickoff coverage given the fact that we're starting five yards downfield. But the kicks are different, so you kind of have to figure out all the timing and the angles. We're going to take a shot at it this weekend and see what happens. We'll analyze it from there."

A large part of the Ravens' issue with the rule is that they have a kicker on their roster who booted touchbacks at a record pace last season when the ball was kicked from the 30-yard line. Now that kickoffs have been moved up to the 35, Cundiff's advantage over the rest of the kickers in the league has been lessened.

According to figures compiled by Peter King of SI.com (or at least someone on SI's staff), 16.4 percent of kickoffs last year resulted in touchbacks. What was the number in the first week of the preseason? Nearly twice that of last year - 31.4 percent; and that's with a number of players returning kicks they normally wouldn't, in hopes of impressing the coaching staff and setting themselves up to earn a roster spot.

There is one guy at Ravens headquarters who isn't upset about the new kickoff policy - defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

As far as Pagano is concerned, the new rules are a great idea, as more times than not, they'll probably allow his defense to line up at the 20-yard line to start the drive.

"When they start talking about sky kicking and working on coverage, I'm like, 'Come on, just kick it out of the end zone. The 20 is fine. Just take the thing out,'" Pagano said with a chuckle. "I know coach (Harbaugh), being a special teams guy, said it was a yawner, right? I'm sitting there... If you go back and look at the stats over the last 10 years, if someone is going to go 80 yards on you, they're only going to score 16 percent of the time. So, kick it out of the end zone. We'd love to start from the 20."

The NFL has the ability to change the rule at any point during the league year, if they would like, but a more likely scenario has the league experimenting with the new kickoff rules through a full season and then examining whether the drop-off in returns has correlated to a drop-off in injuries on kickoffs.

"I'm sure they're going to assess it in the future and find out if the players safety issues that they addressed are being addressed and how much football we're losing and then be able to balance those two," Rosburg said. "We all love the game, how it's been played. and we also, at the same time, have the same interests for our players' safety.

"So there's got to be a balance in there - somewhere where we can find a spot where perhaps how we do the kickoff returns or some other method to not lose as much football, and at the same time, still address the issue of player safety."

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