You saw it just like I did. In their first game since the NFL mandated the 35-yard line for kickoffs, the Chicago Bears twice kicked off from their 30-yard line in Saturday's preseason opener. Referee Jeff Triplette allowed it twice until Carl Johnson, the NFL's vice president of officiating, put a stop to it via a phone call to the Soldier Field press box.
So what gives? Why did the Bears add 5 yards to their kickoff coverage territory? And why were they initially allowed to do it? Was it a matter of strategy or confusion?
The answer appears to be both.
At the start of the Bears' locally-produced broadcast, announcers Sam Rosen and Erik Kramer -- presumably reflecting the team's position -- said the rule gives each NFL team an option to mark the ball as high as the 35-yard line. The Bears, Rosen said, had chosen not to take that option. In fact, coach Lovie Smith later told reporters that he wanted to see his coverage teams cover a kick that was more likely to be returned.
Smith: "We know [place-kicker] Robbie Gould. We can put it on the 35, and he can kick it out each time."
One problem: The rule was not intended to provide a choice. Its intent was not to limit kickoff returns but to improve safety on kickoffs. Only a deeply interpretative analysis of the rule's wording would suggest otherwise. Here is how Rule 6, Section 1, Article 2(a) is written in the 2011 NFL rule book: "The restraining line for the kicking team shall be its 35-yard line for a kickoff and its 20-yard line for a safety kick."
I guess you could define "restraining line" as the furthest possible point a team can kick off, and infer that a team could line up further back even though it would seem to create a better chance for a return. Otherwise, I'm not sure why Triplette allowed it, and Johnson's call made clear he shouldn't have.
To be fair, I can see where the Bears were coming from. Generally speaking, kickoffs at the 35-yard line should increase the likelihood of touchbacks and/or short returns. But based on what Gould told the Chicago Tribune, the Bears aren't convinced that touchbacks will rule the day when the weather turns colder.
"By moving it to the 35," Gould told the Tribune, "they think there are going to be more touchbacks and there may be in warm-weather places but not in Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh. There are going to be plenty of places where you're not going to get touchbacks."
On a warm night like Saturday, Gould's kickoffs were likely to carry deep into the end zone. But if touchbacks do indeed diminish later in the season, the Bears ostensibly wanted to practice their coverage schemes in the preseason.
Let's not be completely naive here. The Bears opposed the rule change in March because it will diminish the annual field-position advantage they get from their strong return game. So let's not completely rule out the possibility of gamesmanship and/or that the Bears were making a one-time passive protest to the rule change.
Two people could reasonably argue whether a kickoff from the 35-yard line, combined with a 5-yard limit on head starts for cover men, will actually improve safety. But when a rule is changed for safety reasons, there is no leeway.
It's worth noting that Bears defensive end Corey Wootton was lost for four weeks because of a knee injury on the opening kickoff. I doubt whether the extra 5 yards contributed to the injury. But unless I'm missing something here, the Bears won't get another opportunity to "test" their coverage teams unless they take a delay of game penalty and Triplette shouldn't have allowed this one.