The NFL's competition committee recently mulled over changing the kickoff from the 30 yard line back to the 35 yard line where it was in 1994. In fact, it was originally moved to the 30 to reduce touchbacks, increase returns, and add excitement to the game. The committee voted to enact the change, to "decrease injuries". This assumes that there would be more touchbacks, and guys would choose to not run the ball out of the endzone.
To counter the increase in touchbacks, they considered moving the touchback out to the 25 yard line instead of the 20. This would add a increased penalty for touchbacks, and make teams decide whether it would be worth it or not. The competition committee chose not to enact the extra five yard penalty, thereby removing the added penalty for touchbacks.
The question becomes whether that will kill the kicking game or not. Kicking the ball into the endzone doesn't stop a return. There are still guys that will run the ball out of the endzone. Why not? If you can get around 20 yards either way, why not try for a longer return. For example kicker Billy Cundiff of the Ravens averaged 71.1 yards on his 79 kickoffs (best in the league). That looks to be close to a touchback every time, yet 48% of his kickoffs were run back for an average return of 26 yards (about 3 yards less than league average).
In fact, if I look at kickers that have kicked more than 10 times this year (meaning that was their primary job - goodbye Wes Welker), only 16.6% (or 1 in 6) of the kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. The average kickoff was 64.4 yards with an average return of 22.4 yards, netting an average field position of 28 yards. At face value, the new rule will shave about 5 yards off of field position, moving closer to the standard 20 yards of the touchback. This is where the 25 yard touchback penalty could have helped. What else is going to change with the new rules?
First of all, there likely will be more kicks into the endzone, since the average kickoff now would put the ball at around the half yard mark. The gunners, however, are now five yards closer to the returner, meaning that there will likely be more fair catches, meaning guys will be less likely to bring the ball out. The other thing that means is that they are more likely to be able to trap a guy within 10 yards. With the extra 5 yard gap, teams could look more at directional kicking, since you can afford to lose the extra five yards distance.
In the end, though, it will probably just take the game back to 1994. Some guys still ran the ball out. Some guys still took it home for a touchdown. Stud returners like Devin Hester will still probably find a way to make it happen, but they might be fewer and farther in between. Kickers will still get hurt, and backups will lack some leg strength. Welker's only kickoff was 45 yards. Under the new rules, that would now land at the 20 yard line.
The question is whether teams will devalue top end returners and gunners going forward? Will kickers with booming legs be replaced by guys with more accurate placement? If history is any guide, I'd say that teams that valued special teams will continue to value special teams (New England Patriots). Those that don't still won't (New
Jersey York Giants). If some team has a great returner, another team will employ a great gunner. I don't think the kicking game will be devalued league wide, but I do believe that it will be easier for teams to ignore kickoffs by simply hiring a kicker with a big leg.
How do you feel about rolling the kickoff back to the 1994 point?