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The NFL's new touchback rule is a disaster (but not for the reason you think)
National Football League

The NFL's new touchback rule is a disaster (but not for the reason you think)

Published Mar. 24, 2016 9:34 a.m. ET

While most of the NFL's announced rule changes this week were of the mundane variety (the extension of peel back blocks), there was one new rule that's going to alter the fundamentals of field position and have an adverse effect on Sundays.

Starting next year, in a one-year trial (like last year's 33-yard extra point, which was cemented in the rule book this year), a touchback will come out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line, a rule that's designed to lead to fewer kickoff returns. Those returns feature the worst high-speed collisions in the sport and the "safety-conscious" league wants them cut down.

While football isn't going to be turned on its head and the game won't become unrecognizable because of this rule, it's still a misguided idea that'll forever reshape a play that the NFL has steadily tried to eradicate.

(Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)


Given that the kickoff recently moved up to the 35-yard line (from the 30, where it used to be) and now the touchback will go from the 20 to the 25, the thought is players will be instructed to take the touchback in the end zone because the odds of going 25 yards out of the end zone are slim. (Ten players averaged more than 25 yards per kickoff return last year.) The five yards might not seem like much, but given the improvement in field-goal kicking, a team on the 25 has to go about 38 yards to be in field-goal range or go-for-it territory. Those 38 yards would be enough to get to an opponent's 37-yard line, allowing for a 55-yard kick. Go 43 yards and it's a 50-yarder. Game-winning or game-tying drives just became that much easier.

Why is this so bad? Not because of an extra five yards, really. That's merely a nuisance and the usual offensive-improving rule we've seen the NFL make countless times in the past decade. No, it's bad because the NFL doesn't have the guts to get rid of the kickoff so it's trying to legislate it to death.

(Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

It's time to cut the charade. If the NFL doesn't want players to take the ball out of the end zone, then just start every post-kickoff possession on the 20. Period. Problem solved. Oh, sure, it'll be fun this year to watch the returners with visions of touchdown celebrations dancing in their heads take the ball out and get tackled on the 12-yard line. We'll all have a good laugh while Phil Simms tells us it wasn't a great decision over a shot of an angry special-teams coach, who always seem to be the angriest coaches, for some reason. But it's not worth it. You want it gone? End it.

"But what about the kickoff return touchdown, one of the most exciting plays in football, a play that can change the game on a dime?" I was worried too. Then I looked at the numbers. There were approximately 1,100 kickoff returns last year. How many were taken back for touchdowns? Fifteen? Twenty? Try seven. SEVEN. That means kickoffs went for touchdowns on 0.63% of returns, and that's not including touchbacks, which generally happen about half the time.  

Let's try and dispel another myth. There's been some talk that teams will try to use pooch kicks or directional kicks to pin a team deep rather than run the risk of it getting the ball at the 25. In doing so, this will have the opposite effect the NFL has intended, leading to more returns and thus more dangerous plays.

Oh, come on, it's just that easy? Stephen Gostkowski is just going to point to a spot on the field and kick the ball exactly there? Sure he is. Punters fail so miserably at this and they have far more control of the ball (drop, angle, leg speed, body direction) and have trained their entire football lives to do such things. And again, they're horrible at it. How many times per season do you curse your team's punter for booming what should be an easy 40-yard pooch eight yards into the end zone instead? Often! Kickers are used to booming field goals and kickoffs at 100%. Now they think they'll be able to control a 60-yard kick from a tee with the accuracy of a Phil Mickelson flop shot?

They won't do it for the same reason they won't be doing it now. The NFL is a risk-averse league. While the 25-yard touchback isn't an ideal situation, the risk of kicking the ball out of bounds and having teams get it at the 40 is far worse. Getting cute with kickoffs instead of just booting the ball deep brings that OB kick into bigger play. 

Anyway, do pooches even work? When teams would kick away from Dante Hall or Devin Hester, they'd have to loft it up to the 25-yard line and give away about 15 yards of field position. This doesn't even mention the problem with line-drive kicks (returners get them too quickly and defenders get out of their lanes).

(Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

There's always a "sky is falling" fear whenever NFL rules change, and this is as good a time as any to be running around screaming about it. Remember last year when everybody thought the longer extra point would cause every team to go for two? Never happened. (Risk averse.) Yes, much like that rule, giving away 1/5th of the field instead of 1/4th on touchbacks is a big deal. Still, like teams kicking the more-missable 33-yard extra point, teams will grudgingly accept touchbacks at the 25 instead of playing games that could lead to longer returns or out-of-bounds kicks.

But they shouldn't have to. If player safety is a reason to change it, just make the easy move and abandon the whole thing.

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)


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