NFC West: 2011 potential rule changes

NEW ORLEANS -- Marty Callinan of ESPN Stats & Information has passed along helpful information regarding the NFL's recently adopted rules changes regarding kickoffs.

All agree the measure will produce additional touchbacks.

Here's the thing, though: Touchbacks have been on the rise, anyway, as the chart illustrates.

Callinan offers these notes:
  • There were 2,448 kickoffs from the 30-yard line in 2010. Sixteen percent of those resulted in touchbacks. Twenty-seven kickoffs took place at the 35 and 37.0 percent ended with a touchback.
  • Since 2001, 11.1 percent of kickoffs from the 30 resulted in touchbacks. That percentage nearly tripled (31.7%) when the kickoff yard line was the 35. Since 2007, four out of every ten kickoffs from the 35 were not returned.
  • With the recent spike in touchbacks and the new kickoff line, we might be close to seeing a touchback percentage near 50.

One thing I'd like to see is whether deeper kickoffs correlate with longer returns in the absence of touchbacks. That was the case for the Seattle Seahawks' Leon Washington last season, as discussed previously. Washington's teammate, Michael Robinson, thinks that will be one product of the new rules.

I'll dive into this subject more deeply upon returning from the NFL owners meeting. Catching a flight soon.

The NFL has bigger things to worry about than reseeding the playoffs to prevent another division winner from qualifying with a losing record.

The Atlanta Falcons' Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, told reporters during a conference call Wednesday the issue could be losing support. As a result, the issue is off the agenda for the 2011 owners' meetings, which begin next week.

The Seattle Seahawks made history last season by winning the NFC West with a 7-9 record, the first team to ever win their division with a losing record. They earned a playoff berth while the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers missed the NFC postseason cut despite 10-6 records.

The Giants and Bucs had reason to be frustrated with their fates last season. Both teams defeated Seattle convincingly during the regular season. Both teams finished three games ahead of Seattle in the overall NFC standings.

My feeling, however, was that winning a division should still count for something significant -- a guaranteed home playoff game, in this case -- or else why have divisions at all? Also, why revamp the playoff system in reaction to something so historically rare?

It's a question that could beg for revisiting in the future. Realignment into four-team divisions has increased the likelihood that losing teams will prevail.

As noted last month, the NFL produced four losing teams within the division on four occasions between 1990 and 2001, the years immediately prior to realignment. Those divisions had more than four teams, however.

A look back at the "offending" divisions -- those with at least four losing teams -- from 1990 through this past season ...

The 2001 AFC Central featured the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and a Pittsburgh Steelers team that went 13-3 with Kordell Stewart at quarterback.

The 1997 San Francisco 49ers went 13-3, including 1-0 with Jim Druckenmiller as the starting quarterback. The rest of the NFC West that season? Not so good.
Eric Pegram and Bam Morris carried the rushing load for the 1995 AFC Central champion Steelers. The Cincinnati Bengals went 7-9 that season despite getting 28 touchdown passes from Jeff Blake.

The 1990 Chicago Bears won the NFC Central with quarterback Jim Harbaugh posting a 10-4 starting record. Harbaugh finished that season with 10 touchdown passes and four more scores on the ground.