What were the league owners thinking when they changed the instant replay system and the regulations governing kick-offs?
At the NFL owners' meetings this spring in New Orleans, no one even knew if there would be an NFL season. But that didn't stop the league from passing what seemed like a few minor rule changes for the 2011 campaign. There were some clarifications issued on what constitutes a legal catch—which didn't seem to clarify much. They gave notice that fines would be going up for cheap-shot repeat offenders, plus a few changes to the rules governing kickoffs, and a little tweak to the NFL's instant replay system. No big whoop. The games did start on schedule, as almost everyone knows, and it barely took a fortnight for a few of those minor changes to look like major problems. Only two games in, and it's already become sore-thumb obvious that some of the league's new rules are a mitigated disaster.
First, let's look at the unmitigated parts: the new regulations governing kickoff returns, and changes to which calls can be reviewed by instant replay.
As part of an effort to reduce injuries, the kickoff line was moved five yards closer to the receiving team, from the 30 to 35-yard line, with kickoff coverage squads prohibited from lining up more than five yards behind the line, to prevent a running start. The NFL anticipated that the changes could increase touchbacks—by far football's least exciting play—by as much as 15 percent. With a still admittedly small sample, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, nearly 50 percent of all kickoffs in the first two weeks have ended in touchbacks, compared with only 21 percent through two weeks last year.
Um ... Why is that a good thing, again? Oh yeah. Safety. Well, touchbacks are awful. Chicago's electrifying kick returner Devin Hester, who doubtless feels his livelihood under attack, might have put it best, telling the Chicago Tribune this week that the new rules are "pointless" and "taking away some of the fun in the NFL."