Football's New Kickoff Rule, And Why The NFL Can't Win

CHICAGO IL - DECEMBER 26: Devin Hester #23 of the Chicago Bears celebrates a touchdown catch against the New York Jets at Soldier Field on December 26 2010 in Chicago Illinois. The Bears defeated the Jets 38-34. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The owners voted to move kickoffs to the 35-yard-line this week, which means a lot more touchbacks and many fewer highlights from guys like Devin Hester. All in the name of player safety. So why is everyone complaining?

On Tuesday the NFL Competition Committee voted to move kickoffs up by five yards, and while it's a change done in the name of player safety, not everyone's happy. Look no further than Devin Hester and the Bears.

As Lovie Smith said of the new rules, "I can't believe we're really talking about it -- the most exciting play in football. We would work to try to make it safer whatever way that is. But to eliminate that to me is just kind of tearing up the fiber of the game a little bit. ... Our fans are probably more interested in coming there to see Devin Hester run a ball back, as opposed to a kicker kick it out of the end zone with no action."

It's a good point, too. Guys like Joshua Cribbs and Devin Hester consistently provide some of the most electrifying plays in football. It's must-see TV; not just whenever they return a kick for a touchdown, but whenever they return a kick at all. We don't watch expecting him to return every kickoff for a touchdown, but we watch because he might. If you've ever seen a Bears game, you can actually hear the crowd gasp during Hester returns.

But with the NFL's new rules, if we watch every Hester kick return, we're going to see... Well, lots and lots of touchbacks. It's bad enough that teams can punt away from guys like Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs, but now they can kick away from them, too? And yeah... That sucks.

But it's also a good example of the NFL's Catch-22 as far as player safety is concerned. In a way, it's perfect that this all centers on kickoffs. There's no play that does a better job capturing football.

Exciting? Definitely. Chaotic? Always. Completely insane? Totally.

Literally, both sides line up with 15 yards between them, run straight ahead, and try to tear each other's heads off. It's mutually assured destruction. Take away screaming fans and replays, and an NFL kickoff isn't that different from watching a reenactment the Revolutionary War.

But while we look at those old battle scenes and say, "Who would ever think THAT was a good way to stage a war?" we see Devin Hester returning kicks and call it the most exciting play in football.

Sure, the rest of the game isn't that far removed from the reckless brutality we see on kickoffs, but at least it pretends to be. There are weakside blitzes, stunts from lineman, and player spies--tactical strikes. The game has graduated and become more refined. By comparison, kickoffs lean toward 1700s sophistication, where both sides line up and shoot each other in the face.

How does that make sense? Why wouldn't everyone want to limit those plays?

But see, that's the problem. If you made your living on those plays, you'd have a problem with it. So players like Hester and teams like Chicago have a legitimate beef here, and fans that love kick returns will look at these rules and say the NFL's ruining what they love about football. It's a minor change, and it'll only have an impact on a handful of specialists, but just wait for the uproar whenever they start playing games again and touchbacks drive everyone crazy.

What we're seeing this week is just a microcosm of what's hanging over the NFL's future. The NFL can't make the game safer without chipping away at what we love. And we all want them to make the game safer. But do we want them to make the game safer if it means turning football into something we don't recognize? Sure, in this case, it's disingenuous for the league to take a stand on kickoffs while it continues to refuse lifetime health care for its players, but that's beside the point.

People complaining about the rules changes probably don't think of it in these terms, but they're basically opposing player safety. Like, yeah, it's definitely lame that we'll have less Hester highlights in our lives, but it's also a step in the right direction. We don't know whether it will prevent injuries as much as the NFL claims, but it might. So why wouldn't we try?

Limiting kick returns changes the meaning of a play that seems intertwined with the soul of the game, but if the league really intends to make the game safer, there's no way to do it without attacking the very "soul" that everyone wants to protect at all costs.

A hundred years ago, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt changed the game, too. He increased first down distances from five to ten yards, eliminated gang tackling, and added the forward pass. Can you imagine the outrage if someone attempted to change things that dramatically today? Of course, in the long run, football evolved and became a million times better. It's a good lesson: the game will always evolve. It's just that kickoffs haven't...

So, would you rather protect the soul of the game, or the lives of the players? Call it an unfair question, but that's what we'll be dealing with for the next decade in the NFL. For now, how you feel about the new kickoff rules speaks to how much you care about player safety.

And Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, and Lovie Smith all hate it, you say? Well, that's a pretty good example of why protecting a bunch of professional football players is so impossible in the first place.

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