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Need to Know

Rules Committee Tackles Kickoffs (Again)

For the third time since 2007, the N.C.A.A. is recommending an alteration to college football’s existing kickoff rules. The first change, five years ago, moved kickoffs back from the kicking team’s 35-yard line to the 30 in an effort to create more returns; more returns, more excitement. The second change, in 2010, attempted to make returns safer for both the kicking and receiving teams by eliminating the wedge blocking scheme. Having created more returns, the N.C.A.A. now wanted to make them safer. The rule change proposed yesterday would combine the general purpose of the two earlier adjustments: more offense, but with an even stronger emphasis on player safety.

The proposed kickoff rule is one of five the N.C.A.A. Football Rules Committee offered up after its three-day conference in Charlotte, albeit the one most likely to create a national debate. From here, the recommendations will be placed up for approval by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which meets on Feb. 21. Let’s look at each of the five changes recommended by the N.C.A.A.:

Kickoff and Touchback Starting Lines Moved
“The committee voted to move the kickoff to the 35-yard line (currently set at the 30-yard line), and to require that kicking team players must be no further than five yards from the 35 at the kick, which is intended to limit the running start kicking teams have during the play. The committee also voted to move the touchback distance on free kicks to the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line to encourage more touchbacks. N.C.A.A. data indicates injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game.”

Three decisions that, in the mind of the N.C.A.A., will lessen player injuries during kickoffs. Two make perfect sense. The first, moving kickoffs back to the 35-yard line, improves the chance of the kicking team putting the ball into the end zone. The second, one that prevents the coverage team from getting more than a five-yard head start, might also lessen the speed with which potential tacklers encounter the return man or his blockers.

The last part of this proposal, giving the receiving team the ball at the 25-yard line after a touchback, changes a rule that’s nearly as old as football itself. The N.C.A.A. has its heart in the right place with this amendment: the five extra yards makes it more likely that a return man takes a knee rather than run a kickoff out of the end zone.

But at the same time, the change could make it more likely that the kicking team place the kickoff short of the end zone — or merely one or two yards into the end zone — and forces the opposition to return. The kicking team would be closer; at the 35, not the 30. Would it make sense to kick it short and cover rather than put it out of the end zone altogether? If teams do adopt this stance, the rule might lead to more kickoff returns; that would be contrary to the change this proposal is attempting to create. It would also create more chance for injury, not less.

Loss of Helmet During Play
“If a player loses his helmet (other than as the result of a foul by the opponent, like a facemask), it will be treated like an injury. The player must leave the game and is not allowed to participate for the next play. Current injury timeout rules guard against using this rule to gain an advantage from stopping the clock. Additionally, if a player loses his helmet, he must not continue to participate in play to protect him from injury. Data collected during the 2011 season indicated that helmets came off of players more than two times per game.”

This rule needs to be considered with the following logic: a helmet that falls off a player’s head during a play may be faulty — may need to be fixed by the equipment staff — and, therefore, it would be dangerous for a player to not take a play off to have his equipment issue addressed. Again, this recommendation is focused on player safety.

What I’d like to know is whether a player who loses his helmet and continues in the play would be subject to a penalty. And if so, would the flag incur a five-yard penalty from the spot of the foul; a five-yard penalty from the initial line of scrimmage; a five-yard penalty with an automatic first down; or a 15-yard penalty? And would an offensive lineman who loses his helmet mid-play really allow a pass rusher a clear road to the ball-carrier?

Blocking Below the Waist
“The intent of the changes made last season were to only allow blocking below the waist when the opposing player is likely to be prepared for this contact, but the opposite impact was discovered in some cases. To clarify the intent, the committee approved wording that essentially allows offensive players in the tackle box at the snap that are not in motion to block below the waist legally without restriction. All other players are restricted from blocking below the waist with a few exceptions (e.g. straight ahead blocks).”

Last year’s rule attempted to formally confirm the instances when a player could block below the waist. According to the rule, all such blocks were illegal except when made by a wide receiver against a defender “facing him or towards the nearest sideline,” or by a running back or receiver located in the backfield, in motion or outside the tackle box against a player in the same position — facing towards the potential blocker or towards the near sideline.

As you can see, last year’s rule did leave some room for interpretation. It also created yet another pre-snap read — love when that happens — for the officiating crew to address; already loaded with pre-snap duties, you couldn’t completely blame a sideline referee for failing to properly identify whether a blocker started outside the tackle box, in motion or in the backfield.

This year’s recommendation will streamline the rule on blocking below the waist. It would be legal become for offensive players — notice that there was no specification on position, whether skill players or linemen — located inside the tackle box. It would be illegal for all other players, minus those who go right at a defensive player. Who likes the slight tweak to the existing rule? All teams that run the option: Georgia Tech, Army, Navy and Air Force.

Shield Blocking Scheme on Punting Plays
“The committee reviewed several examples of shield blocking, which has become a popular blocking scheme for punting teams. In several cases, a receiving team player attempts to jump over this type of scheme in the backfield to block a punt. In some cases, these players are contacted and end up flipping in the air and landing on their head or shoulders. The committee is extremely concerned about this type of action and proposed a rule similar to the leaping rule on place kicks that does not allow the receiving team to jump over blockers, unless the player jumps straight up or between two players.”

Very straightforward. How many times do you cringe when seeing a rusher flipped head-over-heels in the air by the punter’s three protectors? Better yet, how often does a rusher actually break through such a protection scheme and block the punt? The first question: at least once every Saturday. It’s a miracle that more players don’t suffer concussions or neck trauma when attempting to vault over three able-bodied protectors. The second question: never. A good rule, albeit one that’s so simple that I’m curious why it hasn’t already been made part of the N.C.A.A. rulebook.

Additional Protection to Kick Returner
“Through officiating interpretation, the committee approved a recommendation to provide a kick returner additional protection to complete a catch before allowing contact by the kicking team.”

It’s unclear what sort of “additional protection” this rule would entail, but the committee is likely referring to a larger halo surrounding the potential punt returner. Putting an increased halo around a returner would decrease the potential for dangerous collisions; such collisions, as you see every Saturday, typically occur between a tackler running at full speed and a returner largely unprepared for contact. Such a rule would have eliminated the potential for the hit Arkansas’ Marquel Wade put on Vanderbilt Johnathan Krause in late October, one that injured Krause and, along with his post-hit shenanigans, led the SEC to suspend Wade one game.

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  1. BobJ says:

    How about we just skip the kickoff, put the ball on the 25 and start playing? I wouldn’t miss it.

  2. Andrew says:

    We keep it because of this

    And we are fixing it because of this

  3. Hokieshibe says:

    I would! An unexpected kickoff return for a TD is one of the most exciting things in football. I remember when David Wilson did it against GT two years ago. Lane just erupted. Why have a chance to lose plays like that?

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    A couple of points. I like the punt block – to me it is a very exciting play and a high risk tactic. These shields are the issue, not the guys leaping over them. Outlaw the shields just as the flying wedge was decades ago.

    Second, I have no scientific proof of this, but the seeming surge in concussions the past decade coincides with the advent of the so called concussion proof helmets. Most all of these helmets require the internal bladders or pockets to be air pressurized between specified limits ( high and low). Depending on the level of contact, the pressures can change during a given practice or game. Then factor in that some players do not like the feel or fit of the helmet within the specified limits and can easily alter the pressure on their own. Trying to monitor this during the hectic pace of a practice or during the sideline chaos of a game is difficult for coaches and staffs. Just think of the hassle of having to check the air pressure on your tires daily or more. I am waiting for the study which concludes the slightly older helmets were safer – not in the test labs, but safer in the real world where humans, intentionally or unintentionally do not meet the standards of daily maintenance and monitoring.

  5. Hokieshibe says:

    Burnt Orange –
    I agree with eliminating the shield blocks. Lets make punt blocking a part of the game again! As for concussions, I think they are just better reported now. I bet if you had people as vigiliant about concussions now twenty years ago, you’d have seen a ton more concussions back then. Instead they just described players as “whoozy”, and sent them back onto the field.

  6. BobJ says:

    Because our wish to see an exciting play a few times a year does not, to me, justify the heightened risk to the players and the additional injuries they suffer.

  7. BobJ says:

    “I am waiting for the study which concludes the slightly older helmets were safer – not in the test labs, but safer in the real world where humans, intentionally or unintentionally do not meet the standards of daily maintenance and monitoring.”

    Like the helmet that John Mackey used to wear?

  8. Burnt Orange says:

    I understand and acknowledge concussions are diagnosed and reported more accurately now. I am not saying that John Mackey’s helmet is more effective than modern day helmets. What I am saying is I would rather have a helmet circa 2002 without the air pressurising mechanism than a Schutt DNA or something like that which I first recall starting to become popular in say 2004-5. The latter are better helmets if they are pressurized properly. The latter are not safer if they are not pressurized properly. I maintain that a lot of the concussions today are due to improperly pressurized helmets. At the college and pro levels probably not a huge problem. At a 5A freshman football practice in Texas with 90 kids out and the bulk of the staff dealing with the varsity on the next field over- big problem.

  9. Burnt Orange says:

    And one other thing – now that I think about it, we went through a phase of air bladder helmets back about 25 or 30 years ago. Now the air is really used more to fit the helmet properly with other components supposedly doing the protecting. Thus the fit is determined by something that can change almost daily.

  10. Hokieshibe says:

    BobJ –
    If you want to use that argument, then we should just stop playing football all together. Why risk someone getting hurt so you can be entertained?
    Removing kick returns is like removing the pass rush. It’s part of the game.

  11. High School Coach says:

    Everyone seems to forget that palying football is a choice not a requirement. These players understand the risks associated with the game and they do not have to play if they do not want to. I am tired of all these rule changes for player safety. If players are taught correctly how to play football and actually listen to these instructions then severe injuries are almost non existent. SLowing down the speed of the game and preventing exciting plays is like telling nascar they can only drive 50 miles and hour and only pass using a blinker to prevent more car crashes.

  12. Burnt Orange says:

    @ High School Coach – agreed with understanding by severe injuries, we are talking about neck and spinal cord injuries.

    There was a study a while back which I cannot find a link to ( want to say it was done in California), but it reviewed filmed severe spinal cord injuries in high school ball over many years. It determined there were three major causes to these injuries. First, poor tackling technique – tackling with your head down , eyes not seeing the target all the way through the hit, etc. Second was spearing which is illegal and has been for a while. Third, was a helmet not properly fitted.

  13. Mr Football says:

    I’m so sick of safety and injury talk in football. Also, stop copying the NFL every year. The NFL copied the 2 point conversion, college is the superior game, le the NFL copy college.

    Back to injury talk…..I swear more than 50% of all football conversations in or around the NFL are about safety, injuries or possible risks of injury. It’s dreadfully boring. It’s okay to discuss it occasionally when a play causes an injury, but god….this talk dominate every single play, plays that “could” cause and injury. Every time a QB runs for 3 yards the TV crew announces QBs are risking their lives out of the pocket. (another lie).

    I”m sick of it. The NFL is obsessed with this topic to the point of absurdity. College isn’t quite there yet, please don’t follow the footsteps of the NFL. This is football, taking a position that all risks must be ended is silly.

    Entertain me, don’t drone on about how a guy might get hurt and what we need to do about it.

  14. Mr Football says:

    And I had a very significant injury during my football playing days.

  15. Mac says:

    If he doesn’t want to play and get hit, try soccer. Leave this game alone.

  16. Really? says:

    It seems to me that the NCAA is quick to talk about player safety and adjust the rules to what they see fit. I am all about safety, but at some point the NCAA needs to address thier issues, its not always this team or this player, sometimes it the officiating.

    A person can literally turn on the TV and watch two different games and see each game is called differently. What is percieved as a chop block in the PAC 12 is not the same as it is in the Big 12. Not to mention that human bias yet becomes another issue when looking at player safety. The current system allows bias and perception into the equation. Instead of having officiating teams within the B1G, Big 12, SEC, etc. why not turn to a rotating system and put a balance in these officiating teams (such as a mix of officials from different conferences or SEC officials call a Big 12 game this week and then next week call a MAC game). Eliminating human bias and developing a more consistent game officiating will by far do more than making all these silly attempts in rule changes in the name of “player safety.”

  17. Jdock says:

    What about a rule about faking injuries? Michigan and Texas are two school that always do that and it’s complete bs

  18. Andrew says:

    Hahaha talk to Cal about faking injuries.

    And Sadly, Stanford

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