New NFL touchback Rule Could Have Unintended Consequences

There’s no question the NFL seriously needs to worry about player safety.

For starters, it’s just the right thing to do. After years of denying the long-term effects of repeated head trauma on its players as well as the failure to treat concussions properly (if at all), it’s good to see the NFL is taking measures to make the sport of football about as safe as humanly possible, given its inherently violent nature.

While the league may have ulterior motives for protecting the health of its players, such as avoiding more lawsuits, perhaps it’s good to know that Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey may not suffer the same tragic fate of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, once Pouncey’s playing days are over.

  • Since concussions became such a hot topic in 2010, the NFL has instituted many new safety measures, and they did so again this week at the annual owners meetings in Boca Raton, Florida.

One  rule change will hope to eliminate the type of crown-of-the-helmet tackle utilized by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier when he hit Bengals running back Giovani Bernard in the second half of Pittsburgh’s 18-16 victory in the wild card game on January 9. As discussed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday, the rule previously stated that if a player “lined up” a ball-carrier before hitting him with the crown of his helmet, that was a penalty. But if it was more of an angle or bang-bang play like Shazier’s hit on Bernard, it wasn’t a foul (Shazier wasn’t penalized for the hit that knocked Bernard out of action). Moving forward, any such forcible hit with the crown of the helmet will be penalized, regardless of angles.

That rule will cause many fans to perhaps pull their hair out in frustration next season, but it’s probably a good thing for  the league and will force tacklers to become more technique-sound in their approach.

  • Another rule designed to make the game safer is one that I find very intriguing.

For 2016, the NFL will  implement an experimental rule of placing all touchbacks at the 25-yard line. The league has been very concerned about the violent nature of kickoff returns, which is why kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line a few years ago, and returns have decreased in recent seasons.

Obviously, it would almost seem foolish for any returner to take a kick out of the end zone, if he knows his offense will set-up shop at the 25 (that’s literally 40 yards from a reasonable field goal attempt for most kickers in this day and age).

But if it would seem foolish for a returner to come out of the end zone, wouldn’t it be pretty savvy for  the kicker to hit the ball high and short, as a means to pin the offense inside the 20? That’s the unintended consequence everyone is discussing now, including Steelers team president Art Rooney II.

  • Here’s a quote from Rooney, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, one day before the rule became official:

“I think that’s one of the things, what will be the consequences of doing this? I think that’s where we need some discussion about if this is actually going to encourage people to pooch it and try to pin people inside the 25-yard line.”

While Art II was probably more worried about player safety, what is kind of interesting is how this new rule could actually give the kickoff returners a more prominent role in today’s NFL.

Let’s face it, while the owners are concerned with player safety, a youngster who is looking to land a job on a 53-man roster may have only one avenue, and that’s as a return specialist. In recent years, it was hard to name any of the Steelers kick-returners, because they were mostly spectators, as they turned around and watched balls sail over their heads time and again. And if they did try and return a kick from deep in their end zone, they would be verbally bashed for often getting corralled inside  the 20.

  • But if the Steelers 2016 kick-returner can field a ball outside of his own end zone on a more frequent basis, he might actually have a say in how some games play out.

And this wouldn’t be the first time a rule intended to enhance one aspect of the game actually enhanced another. In 1972, the NFL moved the hash marks closer together, to the current width of 18 feet and six inches apart. The reason for this, presumably, was to open up the passing game. Instead of that, however, the running game exploded, and 13 teams rushed for over 2,000 yards.

So, will the new touchback rule lead to more injuries? Perhaps. But it may also lead to more exciting kickoff returns.


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