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Sports Column: New NFL kickoff rule crosses yard line, limits skilled players

What a difference 5 yards makes.

And yet, what difference does it make?

The NFL introduced a controversial new measure this season with the goal of reducing on-field injuries. The league moved the kickoff location to the 35-yard line to be the same as college football.

But the NFL took the NCAA’s rules a step farther: No player other than the kicker is allowed to line up for the kick behind the 30-yard line. The change limits the speed the players on the kicking team can build as they charge down the field to tackle the kick returner.

The kickoff has historically been one of the most dangerous parts of the game because nearly every player is running at full speed or blocking. In theory, the new rule should lead to more touchbacks because each kick would go 5 yards farther down the field.

The move drew mixed reactions throughout the league. Cleveland Browns returner Josh Cribbs has been one of the more vocal advocates against the change on Twitter.

“Touchback! Touchback! Touchback! I guess next season they will get rid of kick-offs all together, just place the ball at the 20yd line,” he tweeted last week.

Cribbs also has tweeted about his desire to return just about every kick.

“All these touchbacks.... (shaking my head) not me 9yds deep we bringing it out!!! 9 1/2 I’ll think about it,” he tweeted.

Cribbs showed no hesitation returning kicks from deep in the end zone against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday. He returned three kicks for a total of 91 yards, and Bengals kicker Mike Nugent still recorded touchbacks on three of his six kicks. That is much higher than his 15.9 percent touchback rate from 2010.

So far, the trend is true throughout the league. There were 68 touchbacks during the first week of the season in comparison to only 24 during the opening weekend a year ago.

Despite the increase, three players returned kickoffs for touchdowns. Ironically, San Diego Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding was injured while trying to tackle Percy Harvin on his way to the end zone.

The NFL attempts to make football safer by changing aspects that do not affect the outcome. Expanded restrictions on hits, hefty fines for those illegal hits, and top-of-the-line equipment make the sport slightly more tolerable to play and a little more dull to watch.

But the newest alteration can and will affect the outcome of games. Cribbs’ complaint was not so much against the safety concerns but more that it affects different position players unequally. Harvin, Cribbs, Devin Hester and others now have to work 5 yards harder for their exciting touchdown returns.

And the running restriction for players on the kicking team does not make the game safer at all. The ball still has the same hang time and lands about the same distance from where it was kicked. The only change is that players will get hurt 5 yards farther downfield.

And what about offside penalties?

The yellow flag is supposed to protect players from dangerous acts, but offside and excessive celebration calls erase the so-called safety measure that the NFL has implemented. If it’s a safety concern, why allow the team to kick from the 30-yard line after a 5-yard penalty?

Commissioner Roger Goodell is trying hard to make football as humane as possible. The most recent and noticeable change simply does nothing to help his cause.

Michael Stainbrook is a junior studying journalism and sports editor of The Post. Send him your two cents about 5 yards at


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