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NFL changes kickoffs, replay

NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL owners voted 26-6 Tuesday to change the kickoff system in 2011. Kickoffs will now take place from the 35-yard line. They were moved back to the 30 in 1994. Another change is the kick coverage team can line up no more than five yards behind the spot of the kickoff. This is intended to minimize the number of violent collisions on special teams. 

The competition committee had initially proposed that the ball be moved from the 20-yard line to the 25 in the event of a touchback, but the old rule will remain intact after some coaches said the extra five yards would affect field position too much. Supporters of the proposed change felt moving the ball to the 25 would discourage touchbacks.

Top kickoff return specialists like Chicago's Devin Hester, Seattle's Leon Washington, Brad Smith of the Jets and even the Bills' C.J. Spiller can't be thrilled with the new rule because it could neutralize their impact on the game since the additional five yards will help strong-legged kickers drive the ball deep into the end zone. 

Another part of the kickoff rule that went unchanged is the two-man wedge. The competition committee wanted the wedge eliminated altogether. Wedges of three men or more were abolished last year.

We don't know how the Bills voted on the kickoff rule, but judging from coach Chan Gailey's comments during the NFL coaches breakfast, one would assume the team gave a yes vote.

"The objective is to maybe reduce the number of kickoff returns because there has been some big collisions,'' Gailey said. "I understand that. If you know something is X-amount of danger involved and you weigh it’s an exciting play versus the risk factor of the injury, you want to take some of [the danger] out but don’t take the play out of the game. It would be easy to go, ‘OK, we’ll give everybody the ball at the 25 after a score.’ That’s not even the game we play. I guess you've got to decide what can you do to accomplish the goal of keeping the exciting play but keeping it safe.''

Gailey agreed that kickoffs from the 35 without some deterrent to discourage touchbacks could hurt good returners.

"If you’ve got a good returner, you would like more returns,'' he said. "But that’s being a little selfish. We’ve got congressmen who vote raises for themselves and we’re cutting back everywhere else in America, that’s selfish. Yeah, it would be good for me. But if it’s going to be better for the league, hey, we’ll adjust. If we don’t have to cover as many, that might help us, too.''

Another proposal that passed by a 30-2 margin was allowing the replay official to review all scoring plays at any time during games instead of just in the last two minutes of the first half and fourth quarter. Coaches will no longer be able to challenge those plays, but they will continue to get a third challenge if they win their first two. That was a provision of the proposal the competition committee wanted to do away with.

Surprisingly, the owners chose to table the expanded language in the rule involving penalties for defenseless players. The competition committee spell out eight descriptions of what would be deemed an illegal hit on defenseless players.

The NFL took a hard-line approach on illegal hits last season by issuing fines and threatening suspensions. Look for this rule to pass eventually.

---Allen Wilson


Bills | NFL
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