NFL kickoff rules altered
By Barry Wilner, AP Pro Football Writer
NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL will move kickoffs up 5 yards to the 35-yard line, keep touchbacks coming out to the 20 and allow the number of players in a blocking wedge to remain at two.
Kick coverage players now will be limited to lining up 5 yards or fewer from the spot of the kickoff.
Team owners also voted Tuesday to make all scoring plays reviewable by the replay official and referee. But they tabled a proposal to ban players launching themselves to make a tackle, and will reconsider it in May.
The league's competition committee proposed placing the ball at the 25 after touchbacks on kickoffs and banning the wedge altogether. Several coaches expressed concern about making too many changes to kickoffs, also saying bringing touchbacks out 5 more yards would affect field position too much. Coaches worried about an increase in touchbacks from the 16 percent of kickoffs last season.
"Any time there's a touchback and now it's not coming to the 20," Saints coach Sean Payton said, "I think that that probably was the most drastic of the four or five items that constituted one rule."
Making kickoffs safer was the objective, and Payton believes the owners met it, voting 26-6 for the new rule.
"The bottom line is it's ... the highest risk of injury play," he said.
Browns standout returner Joshua Cribbs wasn't thrilled by the changes, tweeting: "Essentially taking returners out of the game...injuries will still take place, then what move it up again, or eliminate it all together."
On touchbacks, competition committee chairman Rich McKay said coaches were concerned about an increase in high kicks from the 35 intended to trap returning teams deep and severely decreasing the number of returns. He also said the two-man wedge was not a driving force in the uptick in injuries on kickoffs. Indeed, more injuries occur in coverage than on the return squads.
As for the six no votes, McKay said: "The objections were, 'Hey, you're affecting my team.' Clearly, some teams have good kick returners and they said, 'What if there's 10 percent less returns?'
"We have no answer," McKay added, "but player safety will always trump any other consideration."
Yet the two player safety amendments were tabled until the May league meetings. A proposal to outlaw players launching to make hits was deferred, as was expanding the definition of a defenseless receiver.
McKay said joining those two additions to a previous rule caused the tabling. Each of the proposals will be made into separate amendments before being presented again.
"We didn't feel like there was enough support to get it passed," said Giants owner John Mara, a competition committee member. "A number of people seemed to be, in my opinion, more concerned about flags being thrown for questionable hits. My feeling is, I'm more concerned about needless concussions, so I'm willing to make that trade. But I think we need to go back and just clarify some of the language, maybe to make it a little bit more clear for everybody."
McKay praised players for avoiding launching themselves during the second part of last season after the league threatened suspensions for illegal and flagrant hits. No suspensions were handed out, but Ray Anderson, the NFL's chief disciplinarian, said they will be in play from the outset of next season.
The replay change passed 30-2, with one modification: The third coach's challenge that the competition committee suggested dropping will be kept.
The replay official now can call for the referee to review any scoring play. Previously, replay officials only could order reviews (on any play) in the final two minutes of each half and in overtime.
Coaches pushed for the change in great part because they felt they didn't get a fair shake in road games.
"It's a real big competitive disadvantage," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You don't get that look at it on the road that you get at home; they just don't show it."
One proposal was adopted unanimously, giving the commissioner the power to approve or deny requests to change the color of the playing field from green. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the concern was that sponsors could approach teams and suggest a deal that involved altering a field's color.
As McKay previously noted with a smile, "We don't want any red fields like at Eastern Washington."
AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich in New Orleans and Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this story.