By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun
9:40 PM EDT, August 16, 2011
NFL coaches and players have loudly voiced their displeasure about the new league rule on kickoffs, which has reduced one of the most exciting plays in the game to something almost as predictable as an extra point.
But the greatest condemnation against the change might have been the silence heard during the Ravens' first preseason game at Philadelphia.
"Usually people get excited at kickoffs," Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "I don't know if they went to the restaurant or the concession stand or what they did, but it was pretty quiet."
In an attempt to improve player safety, the NFL decided to move kickoffs 5 yards forward to the 35-yard line. The idea was to increase touchbacks (players downing the ball in the end zone), which would lead to a decrease in high-speed collisions and injuries. Some would argue, as Ravens coach John Harbaugh did earlier in the week, that it only increases yawns.
According to Sports Illustrated's web site, 16.4 percent of kickoffs last year resulted in touchbacks. That number nearly doubled in the first week of the preseason, when 31.4 percent of kickoffs led to touchbacks.
Perhaps the more staggering statistic is this: 73.6 percent of the kickoffs in the first week of the preseason landed in the end zone. NFL observers fear touchbacks could become automatic once the regular season begins and teams aren't asking returners to bring the ball out of the end zone.
"I think it's terrible," said the Ravens' Brendon Ayanbadejo, a two-time Pro Bowl special teams player. "You want to do things that are safe and that protect the players, but you don't want to handicap the game. It's just not what it was. We've already talked about it. With kickoffs, do we really need somebody running down [to make the tackle] now?"
Ayanbadejo added, "That's my favorite play in football. So for me, it really changes the game, and I'd probably rather not even be out there."
Kickoffs are one of the biggest momentum-changing plays in the game. Field position shifts. Turnovers happen. Touchdowns are scored.
"I think it's going to have a profound effect on the way football is played if it's just a 'tee it up and kick it to the 20,'" Rosburg said. "Everyone races down and it's just exercise at that point. I know people who are in charge of the rule did it for all the right reasons. I'm sure they're going to assess it in the future."
It's a drastic change from last year, when there were 23 kickoffs returned for touchdowns (the second-most in the NFL since 1970). There was one kickoff returned for a touchdown in the first week of the preseason (by San Diego's Bryan Walters), but that could be the exception to the new rule.
As the number of touchbacks pile up, the need for kickoff returners will be reduced. That's why returners might take more risks than previous seasons.
"That new rule they got kind of sucks," said the Ravens' David Reed, who led the NFL in kickoff average last season. "It's going to be a lot of downing there, but I'm going to take them out."
Asked what is too deep for Reed, he said, "Probably when my back foot is on that back line. Otherwise, I'm trying to take it. If I got it going forward, I'm taking it out."
In the Ravens' preseason opener, six of the seven kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Harbaugh said the Ravens will intentionally avoid kicking deep in the end zone in Friday's preseason game against the Chiefs so his players will be able to practice covering kickoffs.
The Ravens plan to kick the ball higher and drop it inside the 10-yard line. The Ravens are hoping they can stop returners short of the 20-yard line, the starting point after touchbacks.
"We're going to take a shot at it this weekend and see what happens," Rosburg said. "We think we're going to be on top of the return team quite quickly given the fact that we're starting five yards downfield."
If returns teams can "get on top" of returners quickly, that could increase the chances of higher-impact hits. That would negate the intention of the rule.
Reed said he isn't afraid of teams using that strategy against him.
"I feel like it's going to be one big wave," he said. "So if I could just get past that, it's going to be big runs because I'm more [reactive]. So if they're right there, I'm just going to react to them. So instead of thinking about seeing them down there, I've just got to react."
Many expect teams to just shoot for touchbacks, which could take away the Ravens' advantage from last season.
Kick Billy Cundiff tied an NFL record last season with 40 touchbacks. No other kicker had more than 29.
But Cundiff's leg strength could still be an edge when the weather gets colder and sloppier.
"I don't know if it negates the advantage; I think it equalizes it somewhat," Rosburg said. "Guys can now do what Billy did very, very well, and they can do it much easier. I think that the time of the season when hopefully we're playing in January and meaningful games in December, I think you'll see that Billy's talents will probably show up a little bit more."
If the rule continues to receive flak, there is a chance that the NFL will review it before the regular season begins. But Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who is on the league's competition committee, said there is no scheduled meeting for the committee at this point.
Rosburg said he hasn't heard whether the rule might get changed before the start of the regular season.
"I can always be hopeful though," he said.
Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article
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