I'm just not buying all the hubbub being generated from so called NFL experts and the angst from some NFL kick returners over the new kickoff rule for 2011. I'm not saying things will remain the same, as there will be some adjustments to be made, but moving kickoffs up to the 35 after 18 years of kicking off from the 30 isn't that big a deal to me. It's 5 yards. And it's just going back to the way it used to be. But the biggest reason why I don't see return men suddenly being irrelevant is another kicking game rule that passed.
In 2011 players covering kickoffs must line up no deeper than the 30 yard line. They'll get a whopping 5 yards to pick up speed before the ball is kicked off. The days of players running at close to full speed before the ball is barely off the tee is over. No more 15 yard head starts. This will allow the front line on the kick return unit to have a much better chance of making and sustaining their blocks.
Bears kicker Robbie Gould doesn't think kicking off from the 35 will make that much of a difference either, and he talks about it on Comcast Sports Net. Some of you already weighed in on the topic (on WCG) when the news first broke last week. And Frank Tadych's NFL.com blog has some real interesting stuff about the new rule. From the Tadych post:
In 1993, the final season kickoffs came from the 35, 27 percent of all kickoffs (1,923 that season) were touchbacks (520). Last season, 16.4 percent of all kickoffs (2,539) went for touchbacks (416), the second-highest percentage of any season since the rule change, a number that has been gradually increasing anyway due to bigger kicking legs and kickoff specialists.
One other thing to consider, is back in 1993 kickers were allowed to kick their specially roughed up bloated, overinflated, then deflated, then overinflated, then deflated, weathered rugby looking balls. In 1999 the NFL went to the more uniform "K" balls. The percentage of touch backs will increase in 2011, but the really talented return men will be bringing out a ball kicked a few yards into the end zone. From the nfl.com post:
Let's say touchbacks approximately double from the 2010 rate, increasing to 30 percent. Looking at 2,500 kickoffs, that's a total of 750 touchbacks. But we're still talking about 1,750 kick returns, meaning plenty of opportunities.
He pointed out a stat that really brings this entire thing into focus. Do you know what the average landing spot for all 2010 kickoffs was? The 5 and a half yard line. Now kicks will land around the goal line, and with the players covering the kicks not able to have that big running start, my guess is Devin Hester will still see plenty of green in front of him and add to his NFL record.