Bears receiver Devin Hester, one of the top kickoff returners in the NFL,… (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago…)
Reporting from New Orleans
The NFL's competition committee is expected to present Tuesday a proposal that could increase the number of kickoffs that are downed in the end zone, believing the change will make the game safer.
The committee plans to continue tinkering with the proposal before presenting it to teams. It needs a three-quarters majority to pass. In its current proposal, the rule would move kickoffs up five yards to the 35-yard line, and bring touchbacks out to the 25, as opposed to the 20.
The initiative is especially controversial among coaches because it could penalize teams such as Chicago and Seattle, which have so much invested in kick returners such as Devin Hester and Leon Washington, respectively. There were 23 kickoff returns for touchdowns last season, second-most in league history.
Also for safety reasons, the league had reduced the number of players allowed in a blocking wedge to two in 2009 and proposes to outlaw any wedge for next season. It also would like to limit run-up distance for kickoff coverage players to five yards.
If touchbacks are moved to the 25, kicking teams might like their chances of putting more height on the ball even if it doesn't go as far — so-called "mortar kicks" — thereby encouraging a runback with the thought that the returner would be hard-pressed to get to the 25. Those high, short kicks would allow the coverage men to get farther downfield, and could spell trouble for a returner with much less time to set up a runback.
"A guy's going to just get started, and especially now that they've taken the wedge out, there's going to be no blocking for him," Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh said. "You're going to have some huge hits around the 12-, 15-yard line that are going to be dangerous for the returner."
Chairman Rich McKay said the seven-man competition committee would probably unanimously vote against the proposal were the decision purely based on preserving the game, yet would pass 7-0 if based on player safety.
Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts and a member of the committee, said of the differing opinions on the proposal: "I wouldn't characterize it as pushback. I would say that it's creative thinking, and we'll come up with something that kind of meets everybody's needs, hopefully."
Teams are also expected to vote on other proposals, one of which is the rewriting of the rule that bans "illegal launching." That's when a player leaves both feet and springs forward or upward, making his helmet the initial point of contact. That is legal in the tackle-box area so, for instance, it still would be legal for Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu to anticipate the snap and leap head-first into the offensive backfield.
Another rule would be to have every scoring play reviewed and confirmed in the instant-replay booth.