NEW ORLEANS – If only the collective bargaining agreement could come this easily.
The NFL owners struck a compromise Tuesday when they passed a watered down version of a new kickoff proposal, 26-6. Bengals president Mike Brown still opted to vote against it after the touchback was moved back from the 25-yard line to the 20 and the two-man wedge was kept intact instead of being abolished.
But by kicking the ball off from the 35 instead of the 30 while taking away a running start from the defenders, there are still going to be fewer returns as the NFL looks for more player safety. And Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons said it is still a significant enough change that the personnel emphasis is going to move from kick returners to punt returners.
"There just won't be as many returns and I think it's going to affect things like scoring and there'll be more of an emphasis on directional kicking," Simmons said. "I don't think it will be that much of an impact (in Cincinnati) late in the season because it's harder to get the ball in the end zone in the cold. But there are going to be more touchbacks and more 80-yard drives and scoring drops sharply because there are a lot more scoring drives of 70 yards than drives over 80."
Still, Simmons is pleased the drastic first proposal was tweaked. Although he says alignments have to be changed, he says the playbook doesn't have to be ripped up. But it is certainly an evolving rule heading into the unknown.
"I don't know if it matters greatly," said Colts president Bill Polian, a member of the NFL competition committee. "You'll get more touchbacks with the ball at the 20 because there's incentive to do it and that may be a good thing in lessening the stress. We have to respond to the safety issue and that's the biggest thing of all."
The compromise seemed to ease concerns that head coaches like New England's Bill Belichick expressed Monday. Belichick, who had called it "confusing," called it "clean" Tuesday and voted for it.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, also a member of the competition committee, liked the proposal before it was changed.
“We didn’t want to affect the starting position; the average was the 27," Lewis said. "If you put all the kicks together it was around the 23. We didn’t want to significantly alter that. There’s a thought that if your kicker was good enough, he could hang that ball up there. It really would help provide protection for the returner and on your game day 45 (players) (to) use your sixth or seventh offensive lineman on returns because of the wedge.”
Lewis says with last year's average kickoff going to the 6.5-yard line, a touchback isn't automatic. But in a division with Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs of Cleveland and the NFL touchback record-breaker in Billy Cundiff of Baltimore, it's a significant rule. Still, Lewis thinks it won't hurt the NFL's top returners.
"There’s a chance to minimize the impact or maximize it because the better returner will really be the better returner now," Lewis said. "To have a great returner it may put him in play more.”
With son Marcus a special teams player at Indiana State, Lewis has heard the calls for safety in his own household.
“My wife wants this in college football," he said. "I think sometimes as coaches we need to take a look at the big picture. After being on this committee you get a whole different perspective of things. You understand why things are the way they are. When changes are made, why they’re made. You hear from the GMs' and owners' perspectives. Sometimes as coaches we have to adjust a little bit. We’re going to make sure when the officials come out that they provide positive training videos to show good hits.”
Since defenders have to line up within five yards of the kick, there is no more running start and now there is going to be more emphasis on hang time.
“Right now when the ball is caught they’re between the 30-35. What they’re saying now is without the running start they can be at the 28," Lewis said. "Our goal is to make that stop inside the 20; now it might be the 25."
Simmons said with the touchback staying at the 20, he doesn't think the hang time is going to be as important: "They'll just bang it into the end zone."
"I do think it makes the punter more of a premium as well as the punt returner," Simmons said.
The safety issue on kickoffs has been around a long time. Since, well, long before Tuesday, as Lewis found out when he briefed Brown on the rule.
"As Mike Brown said to me, when I first explained the proposal, 'my father (Paul Brown) would only return the ball to the outside because he knew that when you returned it in the middle you exposed your guys to more injuries. Until the game was on the line and then we put Jim (Brown) in and ran it up the middle.' "
Mike Brown had indicated he would vote for the replay official in the booth to have the option to review every scoring play, only because a third coach's challenge would be eliminated. That also passed, 30-2, but the third challenge was put back into the rule. Yet it may be the only instant replay rule Brown has voted for with Pittsburgh and Oakland against it.