The NFL views kickoff returns as the most dangerous play in football, with players running full speed at each other. As a result, the league continues to pass new rules designed to increase the number of touchbacks and decrease the number of returns. Another such rule was passed today.
But league officials are acknowledging that the rule passed today — moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line — may have exactly the opposite effect of what was intended: Although kickoff returners will be more likely to keep the ball in the end zone because a touchback will earn them an extra five yards, kickers may be more likely to kick the ball high and short in an effort to pin the opposing returner inside the 25. If that’s the approach that kickers across the league take, kickoff returns will increase, and touchbacks will decrease.
NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent said today on NFL Network that league officials, competition committee members, coaches and owners have spent a great deal of time debating whether the new touchback rule will increase or decrease the number of returns. Although Vincent says the NFL hopes that returns will decrease, he acknowledges that returns might increase.
“It was debated and discussed at length, and I think that’s why it was a one-year playing proposal is to see: Are the implications what we hope they will be, with less returns?” Vincent said.
NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino agreed.
“We put it in for one year so we can look at if there are any unintended consequences, and we won’t get stuck with a rule,” Blandino said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”
For the NFL, the worst-case scenario is that a return man gets injured while fielding a high and short kickoff, and the league is blamed for its new rule putting the return man in that position. Don’t be surprised if a year from now, the NFL puts touchbacks back on the 20-yard line.