When the NFL moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line for the 2011 season, the number of touchbacks was greatly increased and the number of concussions was greatly decreased.
Now, Commissioner Roger Goodell is considering another drastic step in the name of player safety.
In the Cover Story of the new Time Magazine, Goodell pitched the possibility of eliminating the kickoff altogether. In its place, the scoring team would be given the ball and face a fourth-and-15 from its 30-yard line. The team could punt or go for a first down at the risk of handing the opponent excellent field position.
Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum read the article on Thursday morning.
“I think that there is a continued effort to protect the players, and I think that most of the rules in this game are continually evaluated in that regard,” Slocum said on Thursday. “As we move forward, there are very likely to be some changes in the way we do it.”
If the idea, which Goodell said came from Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, is implemented, Slocum predicted it would “change the game quite a bit.”
Punters, with their ability to kick it high, deep or to the sideline, can drastically limit a returner’s ability to find any running room. Packers punter Tim Masthay, for instance, has had only 32.1 percent of his punts returned and opponents are averaging only 4.9 yards per runback when they do get a return.
“It would be an interesting turn of events, for sure,” Masthay said. “It would change special teams a little bit. It wouldn’t really change anything that I’m doing, but you’d obviously be out there a lot more. Your punting would carry a little bit more weight because you’d be out there instead of averaging five times a game, you’d be out there averaging 10 times a game.”
Slocum wants to see the idea fleshed out. Now, if a kickoff goes out of bounds, the returning team takes possession at its 40-yard line. If a punter kicks the ball out of bounds, the returning team takes possession at that point.
“I think that we all have to be concussions of player safety and that’s probably the motivating issue here,” Slocum said. “At the same time, when we do that, we need to all be conscious that we’ve got a very good game the way it’s set up, and if there are some things that we can adjust to make it better, then we’d consider doing that.”
According to league statistical data, touchbacks increased from 416 in 2010 to 1,120 in 2011. By percentage, kickers produced touchbacks on 17 percent of their kickoffs in 2010 compared to 45.1 percent in 2011.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby had 47 touchbacks in 353 kickoffs from 2007 through 2010, a rate of 13.3 percent. In 2011 and 2012, Crosby has 79 touchbacks in 168 kickoffs, a rate of 47.0 percent.
The increased number of touchbacks accomplished its intended purpose. In August, according to a study of injury data provided by the NFL Players Association, the number of concussions reported on kickoffs decreased from 35 in 2010 to 20 in 2011. That’s about 43 percent.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.