Ravens coach John Harbaugh not only was on board with the NFL’s recent rule changes regarding kickoffs. Harbaugh and Ravens associate head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg were part of the brain trust that helped design the rules proposal, which were approved by the league’s team owners last week.
“Jerry was a big part of reformulating the rules, as was [Kansas City Chiefs assistant head coach and special teams coordinator] Dave Toub,” Harbaugh said after an organized team activity workout last week. “We had about eight special teams coaches there, we had [legendary] players there — Steve Tasker was there — had current players there, we had head coaches there — myself and Mike Tomlin. We had owners there — San Francisco, Green Bay — and the Competition Committee, obviously, led by Rich McKay, and referees. Everybody had the same objective: We want to keep the exciting play in the game, but we want to make it safer — especially for concussions. I think we did that.”
There had been plenty of talk earlier this offseason that kickoffs could be on their way out of the game in an effort to improve player safety. Kickoffs have notoriously been among the league’s most dangerous plays, particularly in causing concussions.
However, McKay, the NFL competition committee chairman, said eliminating kickoffs was never discussed. The focus was always on trying to make the play safer.
To that end, the rule changes include outlawing wedge blocks and mandating that kickoff team members can’t line up more than a yard off the ball, which is on the 35-yard line. The latter rule prevents players from getting a 5-yard running start to cover the kick.
“We have tracking out here, so we tracked our guys on the run-up versus starting from just 1 yard back, and it’s a significant difference,” said Harbaugh, a longtime NFL special teams coach. “It slows them down — I would say — 3 or 4 yards, maybe 5 yards. … Running start and a starting from scratch is a big difference. Imagine if guys had a running start on the 40 [-yard dash]. How much faster would they be, right? I think that kind of explains it.”
Kickoff teams also must have five players on each side of the ball. At least two players on each side of the ball also have to line up outside the numbers. Essentially, the rule changes bring players closer together on the field and should minimize the speed and impact on some of the collisions.
While the league hopes the new rules reduce the number of injuries from kickoffs, they also could prompt more return men to take the ball out from the end zone.
“There’s more incentive to return the ball, because it’s going to slow the kickoff play down a bit, but that’s the idea,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’ll have fewer big-on-little wedge plays that, really, there’s no way out for the cover guy. So he won’t have to hit a gap and a wedge, which there’s no way to go. Now it’s all single blocks on the back end. If even a double-team up front, it’s not a wedge; you can run around that. To me, we should get those plays out of the game. The big guys are off kickoff return now, because you have three guys back there: a returner and two other guys. It has to be a guy that can run and catch a short kick or pick up a squib — that’s going to be a tight end or a fullback, at the biggest. So I think we did good. The only question I have is, ‘Did we go far enough?’ ”
Harbaugh, a longtime special teams coach, has long suggested the league should make kickoffs as exciting as possible.
“If we have to go a little further next year and incentivize the kickoff, the deep kickoff more, maybe we kick it out of the back of the end zone and put the ball at the 20. Or maybe we take it another step and make it really fun for everybody: If we kick it through the uprights, you give the kicking team a point,” Harbaugh said, bringing up an idea that he’s mentioned in the past. “We’re going to be for that. We have [Justin] Tucker, right? But imagine how much fun either one of those would be? So now a touchback becomes worth watching. We make the game more fun. Those are things I think we all talked about and people are interested in, so we’ll see what happens.”