We've bantered about it for years. Shayne Graham, though one of the most accurate field goal kicks in franchise history, didn't have the leg for kickoffs. During his best season in 2006, Graham's average kickoffs fell just outside the six-yard line. Average returns that year went 21 yards, allowing opposing offenses to start just outside the 27-yard line. Combining Graham's kickoffs in 2007 with the average return yards by Bengals opponents, the average starting position for opposing offenses rested just outside the 31-yard line. We don't need the advanced statistical gurus to tell us that a good starting position is advantageous for an offense.
Place kicker Mike Nugent averaged 63.3 yards/kickoff last year, placing the football roughly between the opponents' six to seven-yard line with a staggering 26.5 yard/kickoff return, allowing opposing offenses to start just outside their own 33-yard line. Let's first make the most important point: Mike Nugent isn't (or Shayne Graham wasn't) entirely responsible for the field position. Ten other guys have to stop the returner.
During the offseason the NFL's Competition Committee tweaked the league's kickoff rule, forcing teams to kickoff from their own 35-yard line rather than the 30. The change is largely designed to protect players; of whom are running at full speed resulting in violent collisions like men running into walls. The Star-Ledger called it the "most dangerous play in sports" in 2007 after three major spine injuries were already recorded during the first quarter of the season.
According to Judy Battista of the New York Times, there are seven injuries per 100 plays on kickoffs, as opposed to five injuries for every 100 regular plays. While the jump isn't so much about the frequency of injuries, as it is the severity of injuries. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano believes that kickoffs should be abolished entirely after witnessing his own player, Eric LeGrand, suffer a major spinal injury during a kickoff return against Army. As if a football player would agree with that.
"I believe a lot of people make their money, in the NFL, off special teams. Kickoffs and kickoff returns are a huge thing. But I can understand why he wants to change that, after seeing one of his players, like seeing one of his sons, go down," LeGrand said.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick believes that the league's ultimate goal is to eliminate kickoffs entirely; something that the league disputes. Former New York Giants linebacker and current ESPN analyst Antonio Pierce agrees with LeGrande, saying that special teams play is how many players make NFL rosters.
"That's how I ate my first three years," former Redskins and Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce recently told ESPN Radio's The Scott Van Pelt Show. "(Without special teams) there would be no Antonio Pierce sitting here talking to you today."
We'll ignore the third person comment... this time. The Chicago Bears were reportedly granted permission by the officiating crew to kickoff from the 30-yard line so they could evaluate players -- notably bubble-players that will only contribute on special teams. Chicago was told by the league midway through Saturday's preseason opener against the Bills to start kicking from the 35-yard line. Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis can't figure out who can cover and who can't on the team.
"It hurts us in our evaluation of our guys that can cover," DeCamillis said. "Part of what hurt us last year, in my opinion, is we have a lot of young guys and we got a lot of touchbacks in the preseason last year so we didn’t have as a good a feel for who’s going to be able to cover. I think that's got to be part of our evaluation. You got to find those guys that are able to do that."
Reactions continue surfacing around the league regarding the NFL's updated procedure that resulted with 31.9 percent of kickoffs during the preseason opener last weekend in touchbacks; a significant increase over last year's preseason opener of 18.5 percent. And some are not happy about it. Baltimore Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg said:
"We're losing too much football," Rosburg said. "Going into the game, I didn't like the rule change, but I understood the reason for it and I respect the reason for it. At the same time, that play is a very valuable play in football. It changes games. It turns field position. Turnovers are involved, and I think it's going to have a profound effect on the way football is played if it's just a 'tee it up and kick it to the 20.'"
Return specialist Joshua Cribbs called the "tweaks" rules that will "change the game as a whole." In truth he's right. Though widespread opinion does support the league's point of view that the changes were made to protect the players. Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons takes a more teacher-like perspective on the kickoff rule changes.
"There are a lot of big collisions that occur and the league is trying to err on the side of player safety. I understand that," Simmons said. "I think a lot of these things are happening due to bad technique. It's a matter of teaching things the right way."
Truth is the preseason opener is a bad sample size to judge whether or not the new kickoff rule will result in a great exodus of the NFL's kickoff return game. The last season that NFL rules forced teams to kickoff from the 35-yard line, 26.5 percent reached the endzone for touchbacks in 1993. During the 2010 season, the last year the league kicked off from the 30-yard line, 16.4 percent resulted in touchbacks.
Bengals kicker Mike Nugent posted a 63-yarder to start the game and a 66-yarder (that went one-yard deep into the endzone) after converting a 27-yard field early in the second quarter against Detroit. Neither were touchbacks, forcing the Lions out of the endzone with the average starting position at the 28-yard line.
Players and coaches may question if the new league rule is killing special teams -- or in some reactions, the entire game of football. Mike Nugent's career 60.7 yard/kickoff average (reaching just inside the five-yard line) assures the Cincinnati Bengals that they won't have to worry so much about touchbacks; rather how to prevent opposing offenses from starting at the 30-yard line.