The NFL lockout officially began this month and while it’s seriously delayed, if not altogether canceled, the beginning of free agency this year, a few NFL events are still going ahead as planned this spring. The best known of these events is the NFL Draft in April but the NFL Owners’ Meetings are also being held this week in New Orleans and even with the lockout underway, the owners voted on a pretty important change to the league’s rules today.
When the lockout ends and players return to the field, they’ll find that kickoffs have officially been moved from the 30 to the 35-yard line. What that means for us as fans is that we’re probably not going to see nearly as many long returns as we have up until now. The league did NOT move touchbacks from the 20 to the 25-yard line as one rejected proposal suggested so kickoff returners won’t become completely obsolete but even the NFL Competition Committee’s chairman, Rich McKay, acknowledged that teams opposed to the new rule are worried there could be 10% fewer returns in the game, a not completely insignificant figure over the course of what is (at least for now) a 16 game, 17 week season.
I actually don’t completely mind the new rule. I do love to see good punt and kick returners like Devin Hester, Joshua Cribbs and Leodis McKelvin. But because the touchback rule didn’t pass, the effect on returners won’t be nearly as bad as it could have been.
Furthermore, the main motivation for the new rule is player safety, since far too many players get hurt during returns, both on the kicking and return teams. The NFL has drawn a lot of heat over how it handles player safety and it still hasn’t cleared up its definition of a “defenseless player.” As many hockey fans will tell you, it’s very hard to punish illegal hits in a sport if nobody’s sure exactly what’s illegal in which situations. So at least, one aspect of player safety is being addressed, even if there’s still many more aspects that need to be taken care of as well.
To be sure, it will be disappointing to see less spectacular returns in football than before. But it’s far from the only rule in sports that’s drawn criticism. The addition of the designated hitter in the American League, the NBA’s dress code and the addition of the shootout in the NHL all had their fair share of detractors when they were introduced. I’m sure most of you can think of rules you’d like to do away with in sports. If so, feel free to tell us in the comments below.