Critics blast kickoff rule change

Updated: August 24, 2011, 10:14 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

Former Tennessee Titans safety Donnie Nickey is the latest player to complain about the league's kickoff rules change, saying in an email to the (Nashville) Tennessean that commissioner Roger Goodell is "eliminating jobs" in his quest to improve player safety.

"I think the NFL is destroying the true game of football and the physicality that America has grown to love. For someone who has never played the game to make so many changes unchecked is criminal. Paul Brown is rolling over in his grave because of all the changes made in the name of 'player safety,' " Nickey wrote in the email to the newspaper.

The NFL moved the kickoff spot up five yards (from the 30- to the 35-yard line) to decrease injuries by increasing touchbacks, reversing a rule change made in 1994 when the spot was moved from the 35 to the 30. The change could have another effect -- hurting the job prospects of special teams players.

The 31-year-old Nickey, who is a free agent and remains unsigned after playing eight seasons with the Titans, said in his email that big hits are part of the game.

"It's an injustice to the game and the men who have made their living covering kickoffs and sacrificing their bodies to have their jobs made obsolete," he wrote in the email to the newspaper.

Touchbacks have increased dramatically this preseason because of the rule change. According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, 103 of 278 preseason kickoffs have not been returned, meaning 37 percent of kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. Sixteen percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks during the 2010 regular season, when the kicks were made from the 30-yard line.

Nickey isn't the first player to complain about the change in the rule.

Cleveland Browns kick returner Josh Cribbs, the league's career leader with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, has been irate since owners, citing the need to protect players from violent collisions, announced the change during the lockout in March. Owners voted 26-6 to approve the rule change.

"I don't see (injury) stats behind it, and that's what the issue was," Cribbs said last week. "There's no stats to back it up. Their intentions are good, but the stats aren't there to back up the reasoning."

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last week that he was told that the NFL was trying to eliminate the kickoff from the NFL altogether.

"As it was explained to me, what the league and the competition committee were trying to do is eliminate the kickoff returns, which I think they'll do," Belichick said last week. "They'll eliminate a lot of them, particularly early in the season when the weather is less of a factor."

The league denied Belichick's claim, however, in a statement to The Boston Globe last week.

"That is not the goal. We are not aware of anyone representing the NFL that has made that statement," the NFL told the newspaper.

Minnesota Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell said last week that he believes there will be fewer touchbacks when the weather becomes colder late in the season.

"As the weather changes," Longwell said, "the ball just doesn't fly as far. It's a fact. I think those [touchback] numbers will come down."

The importance of players covering kickoffs diminishes with fewer opportunities to do that. So with kickoffs coming from the 35 instead of the 30 that could influence roster decisions.

"Now you're kicking through the uprights every time and there are touchbacks, what is the value of the cover guys?" Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said earlier this month. "How many cover guys do we really need? Do you really want a true special teams player, a guy who is a special teams captain, a Bill Bates-type guy? Is that worthy of a roster spot?

"Well, kickoff is just one aspect of the kicking game so there are other opportunities for that guy to make an impact on the team. We're still in the process of discussing that and seeing if we have the guys who fit those roles and how we want to play it out strategically."

Nickey believes the NFL's change in the rule simplified the Titans' decision whether to keep him on their roster.

"Businessmen, lawyers, and insurance companies are turning football into flag football and preventing men like me from feeding my family," he wrote to the newspaper.

Browns president Mike Holmgren, one of the most vocal critics of the rule change, said Sunday he believes the topic will be revisited for next season.

"It was sold to the membership for safety reasons. It's hard to argue that point. No one wants to see more concussions," he said, according to the News-Herald of Willoughby, Ohio.

"But, goodness gracious, I think there would be a good chance we revisit it next year. It was a selfish motive on my part, too, (when the Browns opposed the rule change) because we have a good return guy, but other teams do as well. I don't think anybody is going to like this."

Information from ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert, ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon and The Associated Press was used in this report.