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.
Some writers such as Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post are wondering if fans aren’t witnessing a slow death of the kickoff return in pro football.
As the season progresses and weather turns from warm to chilly, it’s expected the kickers will lose a few yards on their boots and the percentage of returns will increase. So far, though, the competition has been one-sided. Denver kicker Matt Prater already has 29 touchbacks to his credit in 42 kickoffs. Five other kickers in the NFL have 21 or more. Against Seattle, Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee had just one kickoff in seven boots returned.
Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News reported the Bills have only four returns this season, one more than the Atlanta Falcons who rank last in that category.
Marcus Easley makes his living returning kicks for Buffalo, so he is a little conflicted with the trend. “The reason for the change is for injury prevention and concussions, so for that reason, you can’t be too mad at it,” Easley told Skurski. “But if you’re a returner, you hate it.”
Not all players charged with returning kickoffs are languishing. Chicago’s Devin Hester, who has bedeviled special teams in the NFL for years, is averaging 31.4 yards on 16 kickoff returns, including one that went for 80 yards.
Two kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns. Cordarrelle Patterson of Minnesota and Trindon Holliday of Denver have each taken the ball 105 yards for scores. But given there have been 786 kickoffs so far, that’s an extremely low percentage.
Among the NFL’s top 40 returners, only six are averaging 30 or more yards per attempt.
Coaches don’t seem to be crying out – at least publicly – about the dramatic increase in the number of touchbacks. Clearly, they’ve got to be pleased when it’s their guy driving the ball out of the end zone. Starting on the 20-yard line isn’t awful but it does put additional pressure on the offense to at least improve field position, if it doesn’t score.
As much as fans may miss game-changing kick-off returns, it has made the game safer. And all things considered, that’s a good thing.
As it stands now, kick returners like Indianapolis’ David Reed will just have to learn to live with boisterous fans who think they always make the wrong call.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.