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Kick return game must remain intact

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Adam Caplan

Adam Caplan is our newest NFL reporter/insider at FOXSports.com. He has spent the past 10 seasons covering the league, specializing in player personnel, injuries and contracts.

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I’m all about player safety. The average career for an NFL player is less than four years.

So, I applaud the job the NFL’s competition committee has done in recent years in attempting to curb the illegal hits that could shorten careers. But during this week’s national media conference call with committee chairman Rich McKay and NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson, something struck me as different from anything else that was said during the nearly hour-long call.

McKay was asked if it were possible to preserve the importance of kick returners while increasing safety. He revealed something very telling in his response.

“Yes, there is a balancing act," he said. "t is a very good way to look at it because that’s what we try to make in this proposal. We had a number of clubs in the survey that actually proposed the potential of the elimination of the play. That’s not where we were.

"The balancing act is trying to adjust the play and keep the play in the game but realize that modifications were probably in order with respect to the play itself.”

The proposal much McKay discussed is to return the kickoff spot from the 30-yard line back to the 35, thus making the field shorter.

“The injury rate on the kickoff remains a real concern for us and for the players and for the Coaches Subcommittee, and so we will propose what I think would be a pretty major change to the play itself.” McKay explained.

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“The changes would include moving the kickoff line back to the 35-yard line from the 30; not allowing any member of the kickoff team other than the kicker to line up more than five yards from the kickoff line, meaning they would have to line up from the 30-yard line on a normal kickoff; moving the touchback on the kickoff from the 20 to the 25; and we would also make the kickoff out of bounds penalty 25 yards from the kickoff line instead of 30, therefore the kickoff would still end up at the same place, i.e. the 40-yard line; we would also propose elimination of all forms of the wedge block, including the two-man wedge.

"So there’s really five parts, if you will, to that change, and it’s a pretty major change to the kickoff play itself.”

It’s remarkable that, as McKay said, many teams proposed actually getting rid of kickoffs. Again, I’m all for player safety, but the notion that five extra yards is going to make a significant difference in safety numbers might be a stretch. Tackling will not go out of the game. It’s the techniques that are used including wedge blocks that cause injuries to head and other parts of the body.

If the NFL eliminated the kickoff, that could prevent many talented players from making it to the NFL or being able to find a sustainable role in the league.

Those of us who are old enough to remember some of the great returners like Mike Nelms, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil and many others have added great excitement to the game and we probably wouldn’t have known about them had they not carried that role in the NFL. But removing that role might have prevented them from playing in the NFL or having a realistic chance at a paycheck in the highest level of football.

And several active kick returners, including Eric Weems, Leon Washington, Jacoby Ford, Brad Smith and many others would not have as much value if their role winds up being eliminated. And if kickoffs were eliminated, that would decrease the value of many cornerbacks, running backs and wide receivers for the NFL draft each year.

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And specialists such as Rhys Lloyd would be out of a job should the NFL decide to eliminate kickoffs entirely.

Taking away the kickoff return removes strategy, excitement of the play and the possibility to have better field position.

The bottom line is the NFL needs to take a broader look at why injuries occur. Eliminating jobs and the chance for big plays isn’t the answer.

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