Moving Kickoff, Touchback a Touchy Issue

NEW ORLEANS -- Few plays are as memorable or dangerous as long kickoff returns. Highlight shows can't get enough of Devin Hester, Leon Washington or Joshua Cribbs breaking one.

The NFL wants to keep those "game-breaking" plays, competition committee chairman Rich McKay says. The league also wants them to be safer.

So the committee has proposed several significant changes to kickoffs, and owners will vote on them Tuesday. If passed, kickoffs will be taken from the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Touchbacks will come out to the 25 rather than the 20. Wedge blocking will be banned, and coverage players will be limited to 5-yard run-ups before the kick.

"This is a rule 100 percent based on player safety," McKay said Monday. "We've seen higher rates of injuries than we are comfortable with and we're trying to remedy it.

"I don't think there's any movement by any of us that the kickoff should come out of the game. So let's make ... changes."

Several coaches expressed concerns to the committee about so many changes. They worried that bringing touchbacks out 5 more yards would affect field position too much. They also fear an increase in touchbacks.

"I don't blame anybody for saying this is a big change -- it is," McKay he said. "Nor do I blame anyone for pushing back. That's good. They made a lot of good suggestions."

The suggestions began weeks ago, actually, coming not only from coaches and general managers, but from players. Last month at the combine in Indianapolis, players voiced those concerns, and McKay said video evidence of a rising rate of injury was alarming.

The league reduced the number of players allowed in a blocking wedge to two in 2009. Now, it wants the wedge gone altogether.

Owners will vote on the kickoff proposals and on amendments to defenseless player rules for receivers, and on owing the replay official to review all scoring plays at any time in games.

As for replay, McKay said coaches complained of too much pressure when it came to challenging scoring plays, especially when they're playing on the road and the play often quickly disappears from the videoboard.

"If there's a doubt, we think the referee should review it," McKay said.

College rules allow replay officials to review every play. The NFL won't nearly go that far, but McKay reasons that with 20 percent of coaches' challenges coming on scoring plays, the burden to confirm scores should be on the replay official.

Of 53 challenges last year on scoring plays, 21 were upheld, reversing the call.

Passing this rule change would also eliminate the third challenge a coach gets if he is successful on the first two. The third challenge was used only eight times last season.

A proposal to ban players from launching themselves to make a tackle likely will pass. The committee was alarmed by the number of players using the technique, and NFL senior vice president Ray Anderson said the league could unilaterally act to outlaw it.

"We want to do it in a more inclusive, democratic way," said Anderson, the NFL's chief disciplinarian. "If it's a critical point we think we just have to act on in the best interest of the game, we have the authority to do it."

The change would not apply to the area between the tackles at the line of scrimmage.

Another amendment would expand the definition of a defenseless receiver to a player who attempts or makes a completed catch and hasn't had time to protect himself. He would be protected from hits to the neck or head area.

The league also wants to keep all of its fields green, so a team that wants to paint its field would need NFL approval.

"We don't want any red fields like at Eastern Washington," McKay said with a smile.

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