When the NFL moved the kickoff point from the 30 back to the 35, the complaints came. And then they went.
But now they’re back. Sort of.
Newly-retired NFL special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, in an item written for Peter King’s TheMMQB.com, argues against rules changes aimed at making special-teams safer. “The Touchback Era is Ruining the Game,” the title declares in somewhat hyperbolic fashion.
Is the game less exciting without as many kickoff returns? Sure. Is it being ruined? The ticket sales and TV ratings would suggest otherwise.
Yes, touchbacks are up. But the less frequent returns, typically coming from deep in the end zone, seem to be more successful. And in turn more exciting.
The returns possibly are yielding more yardage because teams no long have an incentive to keep and groom players who are adept at running down the field and making the kind of high-speed tackle that puts cervical spines at risk. With fewer “live” special-teams plays, the 53-man roster and 46-man game-day lineup will be driven more by needs in other areas than kickoff coverage and kickoff return.
Westhoff also suggests that new rules aimed at protecting the center and guards on placekicks will result in fewer blocked attempts from the middle of the line. “What I worry about when I see the diminished impact of special teams on NFL games today is this: Would Steve Tasker or Bernie Parmalee or Larry Izzo have had careers in football today with these rules?” Westhoff writes.
For every attempt to make the game safer, problems like this will arise. The special-teams specialist diminishes, and the spot on the roster will go to a guy who will now get more opportunities to develop into a contributor on offense or defense before he washes out of the league. In that sense, the change can create other careers by making the window open a bit longer for a player regarded as a project.
The push toward safety will have that same impact elsewhere. Prior to 2009, former Lions running back Jahvid Best would possibly still be playing pro football. The current emphasis on illegal hits against defenseless players eventually will devalue players who can deliver a devastating hit in the secondary.
Similar shifts happen for reasons other than rule changes. Pocket passers are becoming passé. Workhorse tailbacks are sharing the load, short-circuiting tales of the determined tailback who gets better as the game goes on.
Blocking tight ends have become more scarce, supplanted by oversized wideouts who line up wide as much or more than they line up tight. Which has caused middle linebacker to shrink, or disappear.
When it comes to special teams, the biggest change in the last two generations came not from rules but from technique. Thirty-one years ago, Redskins kicker Mark Moseley was the league’s MVP. Since then, the Grozas have been supplanted by the Gramaticas, with straight-on kickers yielding to guys who kick the football a lot farther when kicking it like it’s a fútbol.
Due to safety rules or otherwise, the game will continue to change. And men who otherwise would have had NFL careers won’t. Others will fill the void, hoping that the next shift won’t render them obsolete, too.