by Mark Ross
When the NFL announced in March that kickoffs would be moved from the 30-yard-line to the 35-yard-line, it was not well received. Everyone from players, coaches and team executives to analysts and fans voiced their displeasure at a decision the league said was made to address player safety concerns. The general consensus among the dissenters was this — moving the kickoff five yards would result in basically eliminating any sort of return.
So now that Week 1 of the new NFL season is in the books, did the new kickoff rule have that much of an impact on the games? Yes, but not necessarily in the manner that so many predicted.
Moving kickoffs to the 35-yard-line definitely resulted in more touchbacks, substantially more in fact. In 2010, only 24 of 137 kickoffs (18 percent) in Week 1 went for touchbacks, according to STATS LLC. This season that number grew to roughly half as 79 of 162 (49 percent) kickoffs went for touchbacks. However, what must not be missed is what happened when one of them was returned.
Three kickoffs were returned for touchdowns, which ties the record for most in NFL history in an opening week. The record was initially set in 1970 and then tied in 1998. Last season only one kickoff was returned for a touchdown in Week 1. And if anything, moving the kickoff back five yards actually produced more exciting kickoff returns, highlighted by Green Bay Packers rookie Randall Cobb's record-tying 108-yard kickoff return in the Thursday night game against the New Orleans Saints that marked the start of the 2011 NFL season.
Besides Cobb, the other two kickoff returns each were more than 100 yards as well as the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin took the opening kickoff against the San Diego Chargers 103 yards for the score and the San Francisco 49ers' Ted Ginn Jr. returned one 102 yards against the Seattle Seahawks in the 4th quarter of that game.
And Ginn didn't stop there. Following the kickoff return and a three-and-out by the Seahawks, Ginn returned the subsequent punt 55 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach. With that return, Ginn became the first player to return a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same game in the opening week of an NFL season.
Ginn's punt return for a touchdown was one of five that happened during Week 1 action. The Saints' Darren Sproles got the first one of the 2011 season on Thursday night against the Packers, followed by Jacoby Jones of the Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson in their games on Sunday. The fifth and final one came courtesy of Eric Decker, who returned one 90 yards for his Denver Broncos against the Oakland Raiders on Monday night. That game also had the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski tying the NFL record for longest field goal made when he booted one from 63 yards out to end the first half.
In total, the eight combined kick-return touchdowns (five punt, three kickoff) set a record for the most combined kick-return touchdowns in a single week in NFL history. So using Week 1 as a gauge, it appears that while the new kickoff rule may have significantly reduced the number of kickoff returns in a game, it also created the potential for more exciting plays in the process because of the increased distance (not to mention degree of difficulty) on those that are returned from deep in the endzone.
Besides the impact on the return game, the increased number of touchbacks from the new kickoff rule also meant teams were starting the vast majority of their drives from their own 20-yard-line. Whether or not the two are directly related, this much is clear — the first week of game action using the new kickoff rule featured plenty of prolific offense. Among the other records either set or tied in Week 1, according to the NFL:
- The 752 points scored tied for the ninth-most in a single week in NFL history and were the second-most ever scored in Week 1.
- There were 89 touchdowns scored, tied for the sixth-most in a single week in NFL history and tied for the most ever in Week 1 (2002).
- Teams combined to throw for 7,842 net passing yards, the highest total in any week in NFL history.
- There were five games in which each team had a player throw for at least 300 yards, the most such games in a week in NFL history.
- Fourteen quarterbacks threw for at least 300 yards, the most in a single week in NFL history.
And far as the NFL's concerns about player safety go, the new kickoff rules did produce substantially more touchbacks, which resulted in fewer returns and thereby reduced the number of chances players could get hurt during a return. To be fair, players still got hurt during kickoffs in Week 1, most notably Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff that Harvin returned for a touchdown. But let's be realistic here. This is football we're talking about. It's a physical, contact-oriented, high-impact sport. To quote what one former college football coach once memorably said, "It ain't intramurals brother!"
It's still (really) early, but on first glance, it appears that moving the kickoff results in more exciting returns and the potential for even more offensive fireworks. If that's the case, while the players, coaches and team executives may not still not be crazy about the new rule, and I'm sure you'll still hear a fair number of analysts put their two cents in; I don't think you'll hear the fans complain. And in the end, that's music to the NFL's ears.