NEW ORLEANS -- Ultimately, the NFL's push to alter kickoffs proved a hot topic for one NFC North team and a complicated proposition for the rest.
We opened our discussion on this issue last week, noting its potential to minimize the Chicago Bears' strong return game while also relieving some 2010 shortcomings of the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. In the end, the Bears proved furious about the proposal and were one of six teams that voted against it. But with 26 votes in favor, owners agreed to move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line and to limit cover men to a five-yard head start on coverage.
(Two-man wedge blocking will still be allowed and touchbacks will return to the 20-yard line after some late revisions to the rule.)
There was no doubt in my mind that some form of this rule would pass once the NFL connected it to the politically-sensitive player safety issue. Competition committee chairman Rich McKay estimated that touchbacks could increase by as much as 15 percent in 2011, but he said shrinking the field in which cover men could run should make the play safer -- presumably by limiting the force of impact.
"When you shorten that run and have guys with their legs a little more underneath them, and closer to where their opponents are, hopefully it changes the [injury] numbers," McKay said. "We think it will."
The Bears have arguably the best pair of kickoff returners in the game in Devin Hester and Danieal Manning. Coach Lovie Smith made clear Tuesday morning that he was "totally against" the changes and strongly implied that gamesmanship would enter the voting.
"Teams that don't have a good returner, of course they're not for [the status quo]," Smith said. "I know we're talking about player safety, but I don't know if that's making the game safer by eliminating [it]."
Here's what Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub told the team's website: "It's going to help teams that aren't real good at kickoff coverage. They're going to be able to kick more touchbacks. Touchbacks are a good option for them or for anybody playing us. That's a win for them."
*Update: In an interview with ESPN 1000, Hester joked that he was working on strengthening his leg "because I have a strong feeling I’m not going to get any returns, so let me try to do the kicks and keep a job going." Turning serious, Hester said "it's going to be real tough for returners" and added: "They might as well put up the arena nets, [because] there are going to be a lot of balls going into the end zone."
The Lions voted for the proposal, general manager Martin Mayhew told Detroit-area reporters. *Update: I've also learned that the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers did as well. In speaking with representatives of all four teams over the past two days, I got the impression their vote would be more influenced by the NFL's push toward safety rather than trying to neutralize Hester and/or Manning.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson said: "I think everyone is trying to do the right thing. Different people have different ideas about how to get it done."
Voting simply to hurt a competitor, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, "is a part-time mindset, and when you deal with that in league-wide rules, that's not right. I think integrity of the game should always be at the mindset. The topic is player safety. It's not individual organizations trying to get a rule passed to make up with a team today."
(Check out comments along similar lines from Lions coach Jim Schwartz and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier from Monday's post.)
Given the revisions it took to get the rule passed, here is the bottom line: Hester, Manning and the Lions' Stefan Logan will have five less yards to work their magic. Teams with sub-par kickoff men can tack an extra five yards to their distance. And the touchback revision will probably prevent teams from popping up kickoffs in hopes of pinning dangerous returns close to their goal line.
There is no doubt returns will be impacted. But doesn't the cream always rise to the top?