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Would new kickoff rule slow down Bears?

3/21/2011
Since 2008, Danieal Manning has returned 17 kickoffs for 40 yards or more, the most in the NFL. Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

NEW ORLEANS -- The business-as-usual catchphrase uttered by owners around the league in discussing procedural matters during the NFL lockout won't necessarily apply the way it typically would during this week's league meetings.

The most pressing issues at these meetings usually involve proposed rules changes by the competition committee, but the league's work stoppage -- which is now more than two weeks old -- remained at the forefront of most conversations Sunday in the lavish, gold-adorned lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, the site of this year's meetings.

The league doesn't get down to the true business of these meetings until Monday, when it debates potential rules changes.

As for proposed changes, the most impactful for the Bears concerns the potential modification of the kickoff rules. Because of concerns about the growing number of injuries, the competition committee is proposing that kickoffs be moved from the 30-yard line to the 35. In addition, only the kicker will be allowed to line up more than 5 yards from the ball, which eliminates a running start by the kick coverage team.

"We are basically trying to shorten the field a little bit with respect to their running start," said Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee. "We are hopeful the change will have an impact on the injury numbers."

Further changes to the kickoff rules concern touchbacks and blocking by the receiving team. Instead of placing the ball on the 20 for touchbacks, officials would place the ball on the 25 yard-line. In addition, the committee is looking to eliminate all forms of wedge blocking.

"The idea was to change the play but don't disadvantage either side; try to even out the effect to both the kicking team and the receiving team," McKay said.

But for a team such as Chicago, which possesses one of the league's most dynamic return units, the committee's desire to "even out the effect" could actually play a role in neutralizing one of the club's greatest advantages.

McKay said the average starting field position for teams is approximately the 27-yard line. But consider this: the Bears broke 16 returns in 2010 for 30 yards or more, including 10 for 40 or more. Since 2008, Bears return man Danieal Manning has returned 17 kickoffs for 40 yards or more, which ranks as the most in the NFL during that span.

So the proposed changes to kickoff rules could adversely affect the Bears -- whose average drive start at the 31.5 in 2010 tied the Jets for best in the NFL -- more than other teams. The Bears are one of just eight teams in 2010 to have 10 touchbacks or fewer. They had five, and their touchback percentage of 7.6 was third-lowest in the NFL.

The league hasn't admitted it, but the proposal to modify kickoff rules was designed to increase the number of touchbacks, which it hopes decreases the number of injuries on such plays.

"I wouldn't say that's the sole intent," McKay said. "I would say there is a byproduct. Do I think there will be a potential for fewer returns? Yes. Do we think it is a huge magnitude change? No."

The potential changes will be debated in an official forum on Monday, and the proposals need 75 percent approval by ownership to pass.

The other major rule change the committee proposes calls for instant-replay reviews on every scoring play, as opposed to just those called for by coaches on challenges. Automatic replay reviews are currently only used in the final two minutes of a half.

If the replay measure passes, it would naturally reduce challenges by coaches, which is why the league would do away with the third coaches' challenge afforded teams under the current rules.

We'll get into some of the other potential rules changes, and announcements such as compensatory picks for the upcoming draft, as more information becomes available.

In other news, we ran into Bears coach Lovie Smith hanging out in the lobby with Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on Sunday, and Smith seemed to be good spirits. In fact Smith said he looked forward to talking Bears football on Tuesday during the NFL coaches' breakfast, where the league's 32 teams sit down for an hour with members of the media.

So be sure to check us out on ESPNChicago.com for all Bears-related news coming from the NFL's meetings, which run until Tuesday. In addition, we'll also try to bring you the latest on some of the team's free agents such as Manning, center Olin Kreutz and defensive tackle Anthony Adams.