Chicago Bears Coach Lovie Smith is not in favor of the new rule change that… (Mark Hoffman / MCT )
Reporting from New Orleans — The NFL might be a safer place, but not necessarily a happier one.
By a count of 26-6, teams voted Tuesday to modify the kickoff by moving forward five yards to the 35, thereby increasing the likelihood of touchbacks and decreasing that of returns, citing frequent injuries as the impetus for change. The 20-yard line will remain the spot on touchbacks, instead of the proposed change to the 25, and a two-man wedge still will be permitted.
Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, said the move should result in 5% to 15% more touchbacks. That's not welcome news for teams with great kick returners, such as Chicago's Devin Hester, Seattle's Leon Washington and Kansas City's Dexter McCluster.
"I can't believe we're really talking about it — the most exciting play in football," Bears Coach Lovie Smith said before the vote. "You would think we would want to keep that in. We would work to try to make it safer whatever way that is. But to eliminate that to me is just kind of tearing up the fiber of the game a little bit.
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"We have a great returner, but that's a big part of the game. Our fans are probably more interested in coming there to see Devin Hester run a ball back, as opposed to a kicker kick it out of the end zone with no action. We're totally against the rule."
Teams also voted in a proposal that will allow a replay official in the booth to review every score, whether it's a touchdown, safety or field goal. There was initially a suggestion to do away with a coach's third challenge, but that will stay. Questionable plays ruled not a score on the field still will need to be challenged by a team.
The kickoff rule generated the most discussion, and it marked a reversal from the 1994 rule that moved the kickoff spot five yards back to encourage returns. Back then, however, kickers were allowed two things that helped their kicks travel farther: their own footballs, which they worked on and treated to maximize flight (as opposed to the NFL-controlled K-balls), and tees that were two inches taller.
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Still, that's of little solace to coaches such as Baltimore's John Harbaugh. The Ravens' Billy Cundiff set a league record last season with 40 kicks downed in the end zone, so the new rule will help negate his edge.
"We can live with the ball at the 35-yard line, although to me that doesn't help our football team," Harbaugh said. "Without question, I'd rather it all stay the same."
Commissioner Roger Goodell closed the meetings with his traditional news conference, repeating the theme that he and others on the NFL side have embraced: that the players' union — which has now decertified — should resume negotiations. Of course, in order to collectively bargain, the NFL Players Assn. would have to re-form as a union.
Goodell said the league has not discussed the possibility of using replacement players, as it did during the 1987 strike, and has no intention of doing so.
He also indicated the longer the labor fight goes, the more likely the league's most recent offer will get worse, not better.
"Every day that goes by it makes harder and harder to keep the elements in that proposal," he said.
NFL officials aren't allowed to talk to players. Players aren't allowed to use team facilities. The immediate future of pro football will soon be in the hands of the federal courts.
So what coping mechanism are a lot of coaches using?
"There's nothing we can do about it," Seattle's Pete Carroll said. "I've always worked with the thought of, if there are things that you can't control, you don't spend much time with it."
But as the temperature rises, so might the anxiety — especially with first-year head coaches and those with new teams. If the lockout continues into the summer, threatening training camps and possibly regular-season games, the relatively easygoing attitude of many coaches is sure to evaporate.
Coaches are now focused on preparing for the draft, something they can devote even more time to because there's no shopping for free agents during a lockout. But come late April, when the draft is over and teams would normally be conducting organized training activities (OTAs), it could get very quiet.
"You're going to reach a point when you're ready and there might not be anything to do," said Mike Munchak, new coach of the Tennessee Titans, during the league's annual coaches' breakfast with reporters at the owners meetings. "So it's just a matter of hoping we don't get to that point."
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco's new coach, said that not having contact with his players makes it difficult, but he also welcomed the challenge.
"Maybe because I grew up in like 12 different towns by the time I graduated from high school, I don't know," Harbaugh said. "I just feel more comfortable in uncharted waters."
And, of course, there's something else that makes those waters somewhat less treacherous.
All 32 coaches are in the same boat.