Whisenhunt: Rules won't stop returners

NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL will decide Tuesday whether to change rules for kickoffs in the name of player safety.

Four key changes are under consideration, but it's not clear whether any or all of them will pass. The changes would facilitate touchbacks, but Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt suspects top returners will find a way to produce anyway.

"Safety has been the No. 1 thing everyone is concerned with and it should be because of the way the league is going, with the players being so much bigger, stronger and faster, in better shape, training more for playing in this league," Whisenhunt said Monday from the NFL owners meeting. "What this is doing is trying to reduce the number of times that you are exposing players to those injuries without taking away an exciting component of the football game."

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick came out against the proposal, suggesting it would all but eliminate kick returns.

Whisenhunt acknowledged that return totals would fall.

"I think ultimately what it is going to do is maybe lessen the number of opportunities you will see for a guy like LaRod Stephens-Howling, but I think they still will get their opportunities," he said. "Special-teams coaches will find a way to give them successful opportunities and those guys are so good, they are going to create a lot of things."

Among the proposed changes:

  • Moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line;

  • Allowing only the kicker to line up within 5 yards of the kickoff line;

  • Giving teams possession at the 25 instead of the 20 on touchbacks;

  • Eliminating wedge blocks, even among only two players.

Kickoffs out of bounds would still result in the receiving team taking possession at its own 40-yard line.

NFL teams returned 23 kickoffs for touchdowns last season. Seattle, led by Leon Washington, tied Oakland for the league lead with three. Arizona, with Stephens-Howling, tied for third with two. The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams had none.

The league-wide total last season was the highest since teams returned 25 for touchdowns in 2007. The figures were 18 in 2009 and 13 in 2008.

2010 NFC West Kickoff Return Leaders