New rules accompany football's return
Thursday night marked the much-awaited start to the 2011 NFL preseason, but it also marked the debut of two rule changes.
Kickoffs have been moved from the 30-yard line to the 35, and the opening night offered mixed reviews on the impact. The rule change that didn't seem to go over as well was the review of every score.
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Starting this season, the replay official in the booth is mandated to confirm every score, whether it's a field goal or a touchdown. Coaches can accept that because they no longer have to throw a challenge flag on scoring plays, saving those challenges for other key plays and not leaving themselves as open to criticism for making dumb challenges.
I'm not sold that fans liked it. Scoring is tough enough in the NFL, but with each score Thursday night, there seemed to be a hesitation. If the replay official spots any area of uncertainty, he'll signal down to the referee to go to the replay machine to review the play formally.
So much for touchdown celebrations. Instead of letting fans enjoy a scoring play, there seems to be a paranoia about possible overturns. All of a sudden, the most exciting plays of a game tend to drag as teams and fans await a final ruling.
Five such touchdown plays were reviewed in the five games Thursday night. Some were justified. Others -- particularly the 1-yard or short-yardage scoring plays -- were debatable. Something seems out of whack with a quick-hitting handoff for an apparent touchdown taking more three minutes to be confirmed as a score.
With that much scrutiny, though, at least you know the scores will be correct.
Let's hope the league instructs the replay official to be firmer and quicker with the confirmations.
The kickoff rule came out a little differently than expected. Sure, touchbacks were rampant, but there were also some long kickoff returns. Bryan Walters of the Chargers had a 103-yard return for a touchdown. Deji Karim of the Jaguars had an 84-yard return.
The concern for fans has to be drive starts. Kickoffs from the 30 usually average out to a drive start at the 27. On Thursday night, drive starts were about 3 yards shorter, at the 24.1.
Even worse was that 32 of the 51 kickoffs resulted in offenses taking the ball at or inside the 20. That's going to lead to lower scoring.
Follow the numbers.
Last season, only 23.3 percent of all offensive possessions (not just after kickoffs) started at or inside a team's 20. On Thursday night, that number rose to 30.8. Last year, a drive that started inside or at the 20 produced a touchdown just 12.9 percent of the time. Having more drive starts in this range means offenses likely will be bogged down more often.
Teams such as the Baltimore Ravens should have a distinct advantage now, particularly if Joe Flacco can get more scoring out of his offense. The Ravens have the league's best kickoff guy in Billy Cundiff. If he can consistently boom touchbacks and pin an opponent at its 20, the chances of a team's driving 80 yards for a touchdown or 50 yards for a field goal against the Ravens' defense aren't very good.
On the plus side, though, there will be exciting returns. All but seven of the 51 kickoffs Thursday night went into the end zone, but if a returner can get the ball 3 or 4 yards deep in the end zone, he does have a chance to break a long one.
In fact, expect some great returns early in the season. Because so many new players came to teams so late as a result of the lockout, coverage teams might not be settled for a month or two. A kick returner as good as Leon Washington of the Seahawks can build enough momentum making a return from 3 yards deep into the end zone to break long ones.
All I know, though, is that it's great to have football back, and I don't need replay to confirm that.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN.
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