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2011 NFL Rule Change Proposals: Kickoffs, Instant Replay on Touchdowns, and Player Protection

Yesterday, the competition committee revealed the proposals that will be presented to the owners early next week. These proposals include revisions to kickoff rules changes, instant replay, and clarification of defenseless player rules. It does not include anything on clarifying the definition of a catch or revising the rule to address the Calvin Johnson issue. Before I get to each of these, let’s just remember that these are proposals, and the owners need to vote on them and 75% of the owners must agree before they are enacted. Many such proposals by the competition committee do not end up passing the ownership vote. The proposals will be discussed next Monday and voted on by Tuesday. I’ve got a poll below so you can vote on the various proposals. Pick as many options as you agree with, or just pick none.

Kickoff Proposals: The competition committee introduced several proposals relating to kickoffs. The first is to move kickoffs from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line. This would be a reversal of an earlier rule change in 1994 that moved the kickoff point back from the 35. Then, it was in response to rising touchback rates and reduced scoring.

The effect at the time was to reduce touchbacks by about 15%. From 1991-1993, about 30% of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, and that number was cut in half from 1994-1996. The touchback rate over the last 3 years has risen slightly since the rule was implemented to about 20% over the last few seasons. If the effect from pre-1994 is reversed, we can expect about 35% touchback rate in 2011 with this change. It would decrease total returns, and have an impact on scoring by moving the starting point back slightly, limiting not only return touchdowns but return fumbles that produce short fields for the kicking team.

The stated reason for this change is safety. The league is concerned about the higher injury rates on special teams plays. I support this rule change. I suspect that we will hear many people who complain about an 18 game schedule who will complain about this one. If so, that would be hypocritical. The common theme, then, would be fear of change, and not concern for safety. Also, it’s not like this is a change away from history. Recent years are the anomaly. The game in the 1970’s and 1980’s often had several seasons with single digit kickoff return touchdowns. That was still football, I assure you.

Now, the other proposal does concern me. It is to move the touchback line from the 20 to the 25. I think any change hear could have the opposite effect that the league intends. The average return got to the 27. Return teams would want to take a touchback more frequently if they got an extra 5 yards. Kicking teams, meanwhile, would try to kick the ball higher and force a return, rather than concede the 25. It would drive returns back up. I am willing to listen to why that wouldn’t be effect, but I’m skeptical. It would seem counter to the league’s goal of increasing safety by reducing returns.

The third one is that all players on the kickoff team would have to be between the 30 and 35 before the kick, so there are no running starts. I don’t see how this matters. The players will be at full speed before they get to the opponent’s 30, regardless of whether they started running toward the line from farther back or not. The only difference is time to get there. And longer time to get there is another incentive for returns, again counter to the leagues stated goal.

Instant Replay on Touchdowns: The committee is proposing that all scoring plays be subject to review by the replay assistant, and not subject to coach’s challenges, similar to how replay works in the last two minutes of the half. Coaches who like to challenge the spots of the ball at midfield would love this, because it frees them up to challenge more of those low leverage plays and not save them for these high leverage plays. I don’t see the need for this change, and fear some issues with a few things. First, what happens if a coach wants to challenge, but the replay assistant doesn’t signal in time. That will happen. Can they review after an extra point?

Second, how much will they delay after each score, even seemingly obvious one, just to make sure the replay official doesn’t want to review, to avoid that situation?

Third, since it applies to scoring plays, but presumably not plays where it appears a player scored but it was not ruled on the field (i.e., the Jay Cutler fumble at the goal line extending the ball over the line before fumbling), then the offensive coach would be at a disadvantage. Would officials err on the side of calling questionable plays near the goal line touchdowns knowing this?

The other rule changes with replay, and I think contingent on the scoring replay change, is to eliminate the third challenge. According to Rich McKay, these third challenges were rarely used anyway. Well, that’s true, but it’s because coaches had to get two right. Also, that’s like saying that last half gallon of gas in your tank is rarely used anyway. Coaches must make decisions on cost/benefit of potential challenges, and must hold that final card just in case they need it, which often they don’t.

Defenseless Players and Suspensions for Hits to the Head: The competition committee would like to clarify rules on helmet hits, and who constitutes a defenseless player for purposes of the helmet contact rule. I’ve seen some outrage over this, and it’s mostly people stirring up stuff with mis-truths, but the categories pertaining to quarterbacks in the act of throwing and receivers in the act of making a catch have been in the rule book. The changes are the additions of things like quarterbacks after a turnover, kickers and punters after kicking, kick and punt returners in the act of fielding a catch, a runner with forward progress stopped, a player on the ground, and a receiver who receives a blindside block.

The only two that concern me are the forward progress one, and the blindside block. Did they mean a defender who receives a blindside block? If so, I’m for penalizing a receiver who blocks a defensive player blindside with helmet-to-helmet contact. What is fair for the goose is fair for the gander. On the forward progress, I fear this one will have some grey areas. Forward progress stoppage is ruled by the officials on the field, who should blow the whistle. If a ball carrier is held up, but then hit with helmet contact, and the whistle hasn’t blown, how can they rule that he was defenseless? They would be going against their own rule on halting of forward progress if they penalize for a hit that occurs before or simultaneous with a whistle blowing.

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[photo via getty]

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