Despite reports that circulated Tuesday to the contrary, the NFL has opted to change the touchback rules on a one-year trial basis. Teams will assume possession at the 25-yard line following a touchback in the 2016 season.
Kickoffs are some of the most, if not the most, dangerous plays in football with two teams gaining a full head of steam before high-speed collisions all over the field. Some of the most devastating injuries in football history, including the spine injuries of former Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett and former Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand, occurred during kickoffs, and the additional five yards on a touchback would have reduced the incentive for teams to attempt a return.
In 2012, the NCAA passed a ruling that moved touchbacks to the 25-yard line along with a bump of the kickoff line of scrimmage from the 30-yard line to the 35. The combination of rule changes bumped the amount of college touchbacks from 15.2 percent in 2010-11 to 34.8 percent in 2012.
The NFL already kicks from the 35-yard line after a rule change in 2011, and thanks to the strong legs of professional kickers, most kickoffs result in touchbacks already. In 2015, 56 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
Only nine NFL teams averaged more than 25 yards on kick returns in 2015 and the Minnesota Vikings led the way at 28.3 yards per return. Statistically, the rule change means that a team would be better off kneeling any kick that is more than two yards deep in the end zone, especially with the high risk of injury on the plays.
The rule change for touchbacks only affects those that happen after "free kicks," or kickoffs, in other words. According to Pro Football Talk's report, some teams were worried that the new rule would lead to more, not fewer, kickoff returns.
The NFL approved seven other rule changes Tuesday, including an expansion of the horse collar rule. The league also approved a rule change Wednesday that will allow for the ejection of players who commit two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the same game.
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