Rules Committee Tackles Kickoffs (Again)
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 10, 2012
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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