Falcons special-teams coach: Kickoffs could be eliminated

Atlanta Falcons special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong understands the reality: The NFL could eventually eliminate kickoffs altogether.

The league took another step to limit kickoffs and thus returns -- considered one of the most dangerous plays in the game -- by approving a proposal to move a touchback to the 25-yard line rather than the 20, a change that will be re-evaluated after the 2016 season. On the surface, it would appear to discourage the receiving team from returning, considering the possibility of not gaining 25 yards when a ball sails deep into the end zone.

"It could be [eliminated]," Armstrong said of kickoffs. "I think they’ll find an alternative. There have been some suggestions, obviously, passed around. So the face of it could change. I think there will still be a kickoff down. It may not be the kickoff that you know today, but they’ll still be a kickoff down."

Does the possibility of squeezing out that phase of special teams bother Armstrong?

"No," he said. "I understand the reasoning behind it, No. 1. And No. 2, I’m confident in my own coaching abilities. It doesn’t bother me at all."

So what does Devin Hester, the most accomplished return man in NFL history, think about the rule and the future of kickoffs?

"It’s like taking away a job from people," said Hester, who has five kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career and also returned the opening kick of Super Bowl XLI for a 92-yard touchdown.

Hester, who is currently rehabbing from toe surgery, said he’s never suffered an injury as a result of getting hit on a kickoff return.

"I got a concussion making a block at receiver," Hester said. "But I never got hurt taking hits back on kickoffs."

The NFL previously moved kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35 in 2011. The NFL's touchback percentage has gone from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 56 percent last season.

Then the touchback rule changed this offseason on a one-year experimental basis, although some believe it also could encourage high, shorter kickoffs to keep teams from starting at the 25, provided that kickoff team believes in its coverage unit and thinks the return man isn’t capable of gaining substantial yardage.

"It depends on who you’re going against and how well your unit is playing," Armstrong said.

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant offered his take on whether the new rule will encourage the "mortar kicks" or more touchbacks.

"There are a bunch of factors which each team, so it’s hard to say," Bryant said. "It will depend on each coach’s philosophy."

If Hester returns to full strength and handles the Falcons’ kickoff-return duties, one would expect him to get the green light unless the ball sails out of the end zone. He has a career average of 24.9 yards per kickoff return. He averaged 26.1 yards on just nine returns last season.

"If we’re clicking, we can bring it back from pretty much anywhere; real talk,’’ Hester said of fielding a kickoff in the end zone. "If our return game is doing good, it’s pretty much the green light. The deepest I’ve fielded one [with Falcons] has been 7 or 8 yards in. The normal is about 4 or 5 yards deep.

"As far as how the other team kicks off, it's all going to depend on one type of returner you have back there. If they believe in their coverage team they are going to try it.’’

We'll see what happens when the regular season kicks off.