The NFL may be in lockdown mode, but the league's competition committee unlocked the door for good football debate Wednesday.
Competition committee chairman Rich McKay revealed two major rules change proposals for the 2011 season. Next Tuesday, the NFL will vote on a proposal to move kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line. The second proposal involves instant replay. The competition committee recommends having replay officials confirm scoring plays, saving coaching challenges for other reviewable plays.
The kickoff change is significant and will be debated. To make the game safer, the committee voted unanimously to make major changes. A year ago, the committee took heat for eliminating the three-man wedge that caused plenty of injuries to players on coverage teams. As it turned out, the committee was right.
Eliminating the three-man wedge actually didn't have a tremendous effect on return yardage. The average was 22.6 yards per return in 2009, 22.3 yards per return last year. Kickoff returns for touchdowns did increase from 18 to 23. But injuries, especially on kick coverage teams, are a concern for the committee, so it wants to move kickoffs to the 35 to shorten the field for the coverage units. The current rule allows for teams to kick off from the 30 but doesn't limit where coverage players get a running start. Most get a running start from the 20 before the kicks are made. Under the proposal, coverage players would get only a 5-yard running start from the 30.
The result of such a change would mean more touchbacks, and to balance out the change, touchbacks would be placed at the 25 instead of the 20. McKay said the average drive start after a kickoff is about the 27-yard line.
The one concern I have with the proposed change is having fewer kickoff returns. With the ball placed at the 30, one out of every five kicks was a touchback last year. With kickers getting stronger each year, the touchback rate could increase to close to 30 percent. Billy Cundiff of the Ravens had 40 touchbacks in 79 kickoffs from the 30. Under the new rules, the Ravens might not have to worry about having a kickoff coverage team. Still, this rule has its merits and probably will pass when owners meet next week in New Orleans.
I have reservations about the replay proposal because it could add to the length of games. McKay and the committee believe it could actually lessen the number of replay challenges because the coaches challenge scoring plays more than any other.
Coaches might go for this concept because having officials decide if scoring plays are legit takes pressure off the coaches throwing the challenge flag. As a tradeoff, the committee is proposing taking away the third challenge available to the coaches.
What will happen if the rule is passed is the umpire won't be as quick to spot the ball on extra points, giving the replay official time to confirm the score. If the replay official in the booth sees a problem, he'll buzz down to the referee and then have the referee review the scoring play.
This system would be no different from what you see in the final two minutes of halves when the replay official takes control of the challenges. My concern is seeing too many challenges because scoring plays can be close.
The third-biggest proposal isn't really a change. It's a detailed affirmation of the discipline rules involving hits on defenseless players. The committee wants to make clear the aggressive discipline administered during the season.
Repeat offenders -- remember the league maintains a two-year count on fineable hits that could designate a player as a repeat offender -- can be suspended for illegal hits. The league wants to make sure players understand the plays considered to be overly aggressive, so the plan is to rewrite and expand the definition of such hits. There are eight categories, ranging from a receiver who is defenseless and hasn't established himself as a runner to a quarterback being defenseless on a change of possession to a kick returner being defenseless on a ball in the air. Defenders will be prohibited from launching their bodies at an offensive player and hitting him with their face mask or helmet. Expect this to pass and suspensions to occur in 2011.
To its credit, the league and the committee didn't overreact to having a 7-9 Seahawks division winner make the playoffs. There was not enough support for reseeding in the playoffs to bring it to a vote in New Orleans.
Overall, the game is in good shape on the field and didn't need much tweaking this offseason. Now, if the players and owners can get back together at the bargaining table for the league to have a season
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.