By Tim Graham
This week's NFL Sunday feature in The Buffalo News is about the disappearing kickoff return. Among the people I interviewed was Brian Mitchell, the NFL's all-time leader in kickoff and punt return yards.
In addition to moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 two years ago and eliminating wedges in 2009, Mitchell alleged the NFL has undertaken a more subterranean method to generating more touchbacks.
An excerpt from today's feature:
Mitchell is disgusted with what the NFL is doing to his former occupation.
He rewrote the NFL's kick-return record books in his 14 seasons. Nobody has fielded more returns. He amassed more than 1,000 yards on kick returns nine times. He ranks second in all-purpose yards, 230 behind Jerry Rice.
Mitchell would rather hold onto those records legitimately than have rules erase would-be challengers.
He asserted special teams are being used as scapegoats for safety.
NFL Commissioner "Roger Goodell and the people in the league have thrown more smoke screens out there to make fans think they're doing stuff to prevent head injuries, and they haven’t done a damn thing," Mitchell said.
"Legal hits are being fined these days. Fans say, 'The game is being cleaned up.' No, they're making you think that they're doing more just by fining because the guys get fined, they appeal and a lot of times they win their appeals, which you don't hear about as much.
"I think it's a bunch of B.S. what they're doing. Every year, concussions have gone up."
As part of its report on NFL head injuries, the PBS series "Frontline" created a concussion database from official injury reports dating to 2009, when there were 92 reported concussions. There were 129 concussions in 2010, 142 in 2011 and 171 last year.
There have been 88 reported concussions this year, a pace of 125, the first annual decline if the trend holds up.
Mitchell told The Buffalo News he sees clues of a conspiracy to induce more touchbacks. He suggested the NFL is fiddling with the K-balls that are used only for kicks and punts.
K-balls were introduced in 1999 because players and equipment managers were manipulating game balls -- tumbling them in a clothes dryer, pounding them with dumbbells, soaking them in hot water -- to make them easier to kick.
To halt shenanigans, the NFL had 12 K-balls shipped directly from Wilson Sporting Goods to each officiating crew. The box is sealed with tamper-proof tape and popped open two hours before the game. K-balls never are to be unsupervised.
Once implemented, kickers and punters complained. The K-balls were too waxy and stiff, didn’t travel as far and permitted juicier return opportunities. Thrilling returns were what the NFL desired at the time.
Twenty years later, is the shoe on the other foot? Mitchell claimed the K-balls could be altered at the factory at the league’s whim.
"There are guys that couldn't kick the ball in the end zone when they were kicking from the 30," Mitchell said. "Now they're at the 35 and kicking it out of the end zone. Is it leg strength, or are the footballs doctored up now?"
Touchback percentages not only skyrocketed in 2011 compared to the previous season, but also compared to the last time the NFL kicked off from the 35-yard line.
In 1993, the touchback percentage was a relatively modest 26.5 percent from the 35-yard line. That also was the last season the NFL allowed 3-inch kicking tees. Tees now are an inch high to reduce hang time.
So in 20 years, kickers are blasting the ball farther and more consistently off a shorter tee.
"What is the league doing?" Mitchell said. "I know these kickers ain't got that strong that quick. It doesn't add up. It does seem like they’re trying to take kickoffs out of the game, doesn't it?"
In response to Mitchell’s allegation, two NFL spokesmen emphasized K-balls were tamper-proof and "introduced specifically to prevent tampering."
Informed of the league's reply, Mitchell texted: "LOL."