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October 10, 2013

Kickoff returns less thrilling after NFL rules change

Seattle’s Steven Hauschka placed the ball on the tee and prepared to kick off against Indianapolis to start last Sunday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium. At first, it was hard to spot Colts return man David Reed, who was standing almost directly below the goal post – far behind the goal-line.

The boot sailed high and deep where Reed caught it eight yards deep into the end zone and began moving forward. Officially he was credited with a 26-yard return, but the ball rested on the 18-yard line. That’s two yards back of where the Colts would have had the ball if he had simply taken a knee.

The crowd grumbled.

A few minutes later after the Seahawks scored, Reed, again, took the kickoff out of the end zone and made it to the 17-yard line. This time, even more loudly, the crowd voiced more displeasure with Reed’s decision.

Finally, later in the period following a Seahawks touchdown, Hauschka drove a third kickoff far into the end zone and Reed took the touchback. This time the crowd roared its approval.

This is the life of a kick return specialist in the National Football League – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When the NFL changed the rules in 2011 to move the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35, it did two things: It made a violent game a little safer, but it appears it may have taken one of football’s most exciting plays – the kickoff return – out of the game.

The impact of the change has been dramatic. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2010, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, 16.4 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. In the first two full seasons of play following implementation of the new rule, 44 percent of kickoffs were not returned. Through the first five weeks of the 2013 season, the number of touchbacks stands at slightly above 61 percent.

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