Some of the Redskins’ special teams players aren’t too happy about the proposed kickoff rule changes that could take effect next season (whenever that is) if the league’s owners vote to approve them Tuesday.
The NFL’s competition committee revealed a proposal Wednesday that would move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, and on touchbacks, place the ball at the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
Additionally, no one on the kickoff team other than the kicker would be permitted to line up more than five yards behind the line. (Previously, players often took 10-yard running starts). And lastly, wedge blocks would be completely eliminated. Last year, to reduce injuries on kickoffs, the rule was changed to eliminate three-man wedges, or shoulder-to-shoulder alignments. Only two-man wedges were permitted.
The goal behind all the rule changes is to increase safety, but players fear that it will only decrease the quality of the game.
“My first thought is I do not like it,” said Redskins’ special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander. “There will be a lot more touchbacks, which will hurt our special teams units’ field position on both sides. On kickoffs, we finished top three, I believe, in tackles inside the 20, yards per return and starting yard line, which I believe was under 25. On the other side, more touchbacks mean less chances to create big plays with [kick returner Brandon] Banks, and lower field position. Our goal is [to start at the] 31, and the increase in touchbacks will definitely lower it.”
On kickoff coverage, the Redskins ranked second in the league by limiting opponents to 19.0 yards a return. Kicker Graham Gano recorded nine touchbacks. Moving the ball to the 35 for kickoffs would likely position Gano (who could not be reached for comment) for more touchbacks. But special teams players worry that the closer kickoff spot (and more touchbacks) will hurt their chances to pin opponents inside the 20 and will put more pressure on the defense.
Alexander said limiting a player’s running start on kickoffs doesn’t make much sense.
“What is bizarre is the 5-yard run does not really play a huge role in how fast I am running 25-40 yards downfield,” Alexander said. “But I’m guessing less returns means less big hits. [They are] making the game softer instead of just giving the players the best health care during and after our careers. ... Who’s making the rule changes? People that didn’t play the game.”
The way Anthony Armstrong sees it, an increase in touchbacks also means fewer opportunities for players to make a name for themselves.
“Not a fan,” he said of the proposed changes. “It will take the aspect of the game away. Some guys in the league are on the team because of kick returns. Kickers will just kick it out of the end zone.”
Chad Simpson put himself on the Redskins’ radar with strong returns playing for Buffalo during the preseason. He was picked up by Washington shortly after he was released by the Bills. He believes moving the kickoff to the 35 ultimately will kill chances for bubble players and considers the changes unnecessary.
“What are they doing to the sport?” Simpson said. “We signed up to play this sport when we were 7, and we knew we were subjecting ourself to the possibility of concussion or even death. We knew that. Now they’re trying to take away the creativity of the player. They might as well take kickoffs and kick returns away and just put the ball on the 25 every time.”
But another Redskins special teams ace, Chris Wilson, said he isn’t concerned about the change.
“It’s cool... Five yards isn’t too much for us,” he said. “It’ll be clobbering time, for real.”
Wilson also thinks elite kick returners will be daring enough to take the ball out of the end zone and try to give their teams better field position rather than settling for touchbacks.