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Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

How will NFL kickoff changes affect the Tampa Bay Bucs?



The NFL will move kickoffs from the 30 to 35-yard line this fall after a proposal passed at this week's owners meetings by a 26-6 vote.

This should be of particular interest to fans of the Buccaneers seeing how Tampa Bay is one of the more dangerous return teams in the league.

On the surface, this would seem to have a negative impact on the Bucs. They tied for seventh in kickoff returns with 24.3 yards per attempt, led by Micheal Spurlock (25.7 yards per attempt).

The change could have a dramatic impact on the number of touchbacks, which would result in a decreased number of return opportunities. That means, over the course of an entire season, there could be a significant net loss in field position for a team like the Bucs that squeezes extra yardage out of kick returns.

But the driving force behind this is player safety, league officials say, and that was what the league's Competition Committee used to sell it. By reducing the amount of yardage between the kickoff and the receiving team, and by restricting coverage players to no more than a 5-yard running start, officials believe collisions on kickoffs will be less violent. Data indicates kickoffs result in some of the more damaging head and neck injuries the league is trying to prevent.

Still, six teams voted against the measure, and committee chair Rich McKay admitted most were teams that would likely be adversely affected.

The objections, McKay said, were, "'Hey, you are affecting my team,' and 'you are potentially helping team A and hurting team B,'" said McKay, formerly the Bucs general manager and currently Falcons team president. "In rule changes, that happens a lot. We try to make rules to try to make the field either more level, more safe. There are reasons we do it.

"Sometimes when you go into that second area of player safety, you adversely affect a team that has built their team or set up their way of doing business. In this case, clearly there are some teams that have good returners that look and say, 'Hey, what if there is 10 percent less returns, you are affecting our team in some way.' We don't have an answer to that other than to say yes, that is probably true, but when it comes to player safety, we are always going to have player safety trump the compete aspects of the game, period."

Because the votes are confidential, it's not known whether the Bucs voted for or against the rule. But we do know how some who will be affected by it feel.

Bears receiver Devin Hester, speaking on a Chicago radio station, said, "They're going too far. They're changing the whole fun of the game. Fans come out -- especially in Chicago -- to see returns. That's one of the key assets to the team."

That's also been true for the Bucs in recent seasons, when Spurlock and return men such as Clifton Smith have made Tampa Bay one of the more potent return teams in the NFL.

Another interesting take was offered by former NFL coach and broadcaster Brian Billick, who on his blog wrote that the increase in touchbacks will likely be much higher than the 15 percent the league is suggesting. He also feels the overall impact of this change will be dramatic.

"The difference between a team having to drive 80 yards to score verses starting a drive on the 30- or 35-yard line is substantial," he wrote. "This may very well change coaches' thinking about receiving the opening kickoff should you win the toss. I think with today's kickers we will see substantially more touchbacks than the 15 percent (up to 33 percent in total) increase anticipated by the committee."

Soon enough, we'll know what the real impact is. Either way, the rule is in place and will be implemented, whether the Bucs like it or not.

[Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 10:17am]


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