The NFL has been tinkering with the kickoff rule for years.

In 2011, the league moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line up to the 35, encouraging more touchbacks via balls launched through the end zone. After last season, the league decided to try placing touchbacks at the 25, which would match the college game. The theory being any kick that was caught in the end zone would be more likely to downed, reducing collisions during kick returns.

But so far this preseason, it hasn’t worked out that way. As The Denver Post reports, teams are actually trying more pop-up kicks with the goal of pinning the returner inside the 25.

Through two weeks of preseason games, the number of kickoff returns has spiked. Last season, teams returned 2.11 kickoffs per game during the regular season. Through two weeks of the exhibition season, teams are returning an average of 2.83 per game — a difference that, if it holds up, would lead to about 370 more returns this season.

“You’ve seen a lot more returns this year, for sure,” Broncos special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said. “It’s still in the experimentation process, but I know one thing: I’ve seen a lot of balls that are inside the 20 right now — a lot. They’re kicked outside the numbers and even deeper or in the middle of the field.”

This probably should have been more obvious. In college, kickers generally aren’t reliable enough to execute pop-up or coffin corner kicks, and the fear of an illegal procedure penalty helps promote the desired goal of bombing it through the end zone. But in the pros, it’s reasonable for kickers to be able to do this, and turn the kickoff into a punt coverage play. And considering the 35-yard line starting point, they’re gambling that they’ll be able to stop the guy before he gets to the 25, which makes it a net gain for the kicking team.

It’s an interesting situation, as it’s representative of the NFL’s entire problem when they attempt to promote player safety. It’s an inherently unsafe sport, and the goals of coaches and teams that are trying to win are often going to be pitted against any attempt at making the game safer.

So, what possible solutions are there? Well, from that same Denver Post story, Broncos kicker Brandon McManus has a reasonable-sounding idea:

“The new rule doesn’t give the kickoff team any merit to do anything,” McManus said. “What I’d say is, if a guy can kick it out of the back of the end zone, the ball should go to the 20. But if you kick it in the end zone and they take a knee, it can go to the 25. You have to give both teams a reason to abide by the new rule.

“Everybody cares about player safety, but at the end of the day, it comes down to wins and losses, and teams don’t want to give up those extra yards.”

The league could eventually just remove kickoffs entirely, though that would pose issues as well; the jobs of kick returners would be in jeopardy, which might upset the NFLPA. And often in a late blowout, the possibility of a score and an onside kick is the only thing keeping people tuned in. Onside kicks could potentially still be allowed in a new system, of course, though you’d lose the element of a surprise onside attempt.

It’s an interesting problem, and considering the reputation of NFL leadership, perhaps it’s not a surprise that their first attempt at solving it would produce the exact opposite of their intended effect.

[Denver Post]

About Jay Rigdon

Jay is a writer and editor for The Comeback, and a contributor at Awful Announcing. He is not a strong swimmer.