The adjustment to the touchback has backfired on the NFL, resulting in more kickoff returns, not fewer, through the first two weeks of the 2016 regular season. Regardless, the change will remain for the rest of the season.
Commissioner Roger Goodell told Jay Feely of CBS that the touchbacks following kickoffs will continue to be placed at the 25 yard line, regardless of the increase in kickoff returns.
Previously, NFL senior V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino previously said that the league will need four weeks of kick-return data before it can assess whether the rule is working. Some interpreted that to mean the league would consider after four weeks an in-season change. Blandino, however, never said that.
Shifting the touchback to the 20 during the season would have a competitive impact, with a certain number of games played under one set of rules and the rest played under another. For that reason alone, it’s rare that rules change during a given year.
Although the owners will meet in October and could try to vote on their own to change the rule, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that in-season rule changes fall squarely within the Commissioner’s jurisdiction.
Regardless of what happens over the rest of the season, then, the touchback point for kickoffs will continue to be the 25 yard line. Because the rule was adopted on a one-year trial basis, a vote of 24 owners will be needed to continue it in 2017. Given that the rule was aimed at reducing returns and likely will increase them, it’s safe to say that this will be a one-year experiment with the so-called “most dangerous play in the game.”
It’s also safe to say the league will spend the next 223 regular-season games and 11 postseason games worrying about the increase in kickoff returns resulting in the kind of catastrophic head or neck injury that the NFL had hoped to avoid. If that kind of injury occurs during the return of a kickoff deliberately kicked short in an effort to pin the return team within the 25, the criticism of the league will be loud, intense, and fully justified.