In Thursday's preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills, the Chicago Bears decided to ignore a newly-passed NFL rule change that moved kickoffs from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line.
Special teams coordinator Dave Toub had been given permission from the officiating staff prior to the game, since apparently, the rule is vague enough that it does not completely clarify that the ball has to be kicked off from the new location. However, after kicking from the 30 twice in the game, the league told the Bears, "No, you can't do that anymore."
Despite a rule change moving the kickoff to the 35 yard line, the Bears kicked off from the 30 yard line in Thursday's preseason game.
The Bears had supposedly elected to kick from the old distance so as to give their special teams unit some live practice at covering kicks.
I think this rule change passed by a margin of 26-6 in the off-season. The argument in support of the change is that by moving the kickoffs up five yards, there will be more touchbacks, fewer returns, and therefore fewer injuries. A majority of injuries in NFL games happen on kick return plays - although the exact percentage escapes me at the moment. Although the real reason for this rule change might just be that the other teams in the league are terrified of players like Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, and DeSean Jackson.
Teams such as the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns, however, no doubt campaigned against the rule change, arguing that the move would limit their potential for big plays since kicks will be more likely to go out the back of the end zone without a returner even having a chance to field the kick, or maybe even touch it! The Bears, Browns, Eagles, and a few other teams are likely to suffer greatly from this rule change, since kick returns (and special teams overall) are a big part of their gameplans. The Bears' Devin Hester is already the NFL record-holder for most returns for touchdown in league history and is already a 3-time Pro Bowl player going into just his sixth year as a pro. Moving the kickoffs up to the 35 limits the threat of returns from players like Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, and DeSean Jackson.
But Hester hasn't been actively returning kickoffs for two years since Chicago moved him to wide receiver and relegated his special teams contributions to punt returns only!
I'm sure the Bears were one of the six teams that voted against the rule, so Thursday night's kickoffs might have been the Bears' way of protesting the new rule by bringing some attention to it. Although they may have done more harm to their cause than good during this game. Chicago defensive lineman Corey Wootten injured his knee on the opening kickoff and will have to undergo minor surgery to repair it. Add to that the fact that Johnny Knox still managed a 70-yard return despite the deeper kicks, and it looks unlikely that the rule will be changed back.
But injuries aren't the only issue with moving the kickoff location.
Another key criticism of this decision is that a lot of backup players and rookies get relegated to playing special teams, and kick coverage and returns are their only chances to show teams what they can do. With fewer opportunities for returns, these players will have little-to-no opportunity to make a name for themselves with the coaches, and will be less likely to get more chances at playing other positions and working themselves into the lineup. Scouting and evaluating roster depth is going to be very hard if these players' only opportunities to play are taken away from them.
But at least the Bears' special teams coordinator got a chance to look at his guys in coverage on two occasions this preseason! So kudos to him for taking a chance and giving himself an opportunity that no other special teams coach in the league will have this year.
As for the rule change, itself: I don't like it. But I doubt it will have much of an impact on the Bears, Browns, and Eagles, since these teams will probably just run the ball out of the end zone anyway and take the risk of being tackled short of the 20. So unless they are playing against a kicker who can regularly nail the ball out the back of the end zone - or if they play in Denver - I expect there will still be plenty of kick returns on their highlight reels. And with coverage teams getting less practice at defending kickoffs, I would not be surprised if the Bears, Browns, and Eagles have their most successful year ever when it comes to kick return yards and touchdowns. And I also would not be surprised if the special teams injuries continue to pile up...
UPDATE: Tuesday August 16, 2011 10:48 AM PDT
Having to field kicks 7 to 9 yards deep in the end zone did not stop the Jets from running the kickoffs out of the end zone and making it well past the 20 in their preseason game Monday night against the Texans. This is the preseason though, so the willingness of coaches and players to field kicks more than 5 yards deep in the end zone may only be the result of a desire to see what their return teams are capable of, and not indicative of how the regular season will play out. But we'll see. If teams find out during the preseason that they can get away with running such kicks out, then coaches won't have many reservations about doing so once the season starts.