Let's protect players all the time
Because the intent of the new rule pushing kickoffs up to the 35-yard line is to limit high-speed impacts that cause significant injuries, the NFL should just do away with kickoffs altogether. After a touchdown or field goal, put the ball on the 20- or 25-yard line, and let the offense get to work.
If the preseason has shown us anything, it is that the frequency of touchbacks probably will be somewhere north of 30 percent this season, up from around 17 percent last year. Because it is the preseason, coaches are trying to get a look at different returners, so more kicks are coming out of the end zone. Once the regular season starts, teams aren't going to want players taking the ball out. They will want them taking a knee. The ball will be placed at the 20-yard line, anyway.
Touchbacks are about as entertaining as timeouts. The new rule, which passed 26-6 in a vote of NFL owners in March, is not meant to enhance the quality of the game. It is specifically for player safety. So let's make it about player safety 100 percent of the time, not 30 or 40.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has said that he has been told the NFL plans to eliminate the kickoff anyway -- something the NFL, naturally, denied -- so why make fans endure a transition to the inevitable? Go ahead and put the onus on the offense to grind away a long drive. Sure, scoring would go down, but again, according to the NFL competition committee, the rule is not about enhancing the game. It is about protecting players. So protect the players.
Kickoffs have long produced the most violent collisions, because players are running long distances at full speed. Kevin Everett suffered a spinal cord injury in 2007 during a kickoff return with the Buffalo Bills. No one wants to see that happen again. And no one wants to see what Baltimore coach John Harbaugh called "just a yawner" of touchbacks in the Ravens' preseason opener against Philadelphia.
After insisting the rule is about player safety, the league will be hard-pressed to go back to kickoffs from the 30, where they belong.
The league should go ahead and take the next step and eliminate kickoffs altogether.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Touchbacks, FGs and ... YAWN
When I learned that the NFL wanted to put kickoffs at the 35-yard line, my initial thought was that it was a bad idea. The more I watch it, the more I wish the NFL would go back to the old rule. Let's put kickoffs back at the 30 in 2012.
Safety is an important issue, so I can't debate the injury-prevention aspect of the decision. But I worry about what I see happening to the game. With this new rule, the kicker has more impact than ever before. I fear a game in which there will be more field goals and fewer touchdowns.
One thing we know is that the NFL values offense. When scoring drops below 40 combined points a game, league officials usually enact some change that helps the offense at the expense of the defense. That might happen in many circumstances under the current rule.
Let's take the Baltimore Ravens' games as an example. Billy Cundiff is the best kickoff talent in the game. He can make touchbacks almost automatic. His powerful leg will give Ravens coach John Harbaugh a significant advantage with field position.
All Joe Flacco has to do is play a field-position game in which he gets a couple of touchdown drives, and Cundiff kicks five field goals. That gives Cundiff eight kickoffs, including the opening kickoff of the half or the game. That's eight possessions in which the opponent probably starts at the 20 or worse. Against a defense as good as the Ravens', it's unlikely an opponent could drive for more than one touchdown in those eight possessions.
That translates into a bunch of 22-6 or 22-9 games in favor of the Ravens. I'm not yet ready to concede and eliminate kickoffs all together. I don't want the game to lose the excitement of returns by Devin Hester, Leon Washington and others. Those guys get touchdowns.
I'd hate seeing the NFL becoming the National Field Goal League. Kickers are great and getting better. But I want a game of touchdowns and hitting.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.