FLOWERY BRANCH — An NFL rule change that would end kickoffs would be heavily scrutinized and studied by Falcons president Rich McKay, who’s chair of the NFL’s competition committee.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell floated the idea as an effort to make the game safer during a recent interview with Time magazine.
“Anything that is going to increase player safety is pretty good,” Falcons cornerback Christopher Owens said Friday. “But, we are all used to kickoffs now.”
Under the plan, which Goodell said will be considered by the competition committee, kickoffs would be eliminated. Instead, the team that would kick off would get the ball at its own 30-yard line. But instead of starting at first-and-10, the down and distance would be fourth-and-15. At that point, the team could elect either to go for the first down or punt the ball away. If the team chose to go for it and failed, the other team would get the ball at that spot.
The idea was first proposed by Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, who was the coach at Rutgers in 2010 when defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed during a kickoff return.
For now, Falcons special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, plans to keep coaching the kickoff.
“If they take it out, they have to do what they have to do,” Armstrong said. “I’m going to continue to coach it until they do it. That’s been my approach on it. As long as it’s part of the game, we need to go coach it and win.”
But Armstrong has thought about how he would deploy his unit, especially on the fourth-and-15, punt or go-for-it situation.
“You are probably going to end up with your defense on the field in a lot of those scenarios,” Armstrong said. “You would have what you call the punt-safe team.
“When you see the punt-safe team, you see the returner with primarily your defense on the field or you could go with a hybrid group where you’d have three defensive linemen in there and five core special-teams players around them to stop the fake and you’d still be able to return the ball.”
Armstrong believes the move would be designed to end the blocking wedge. Several players have gotten hurt running down field and attempting to break up the wedge.
The NFL has been inching toward the eventual elimination of the kickoff. In March 2009, the league eliminated wedge blocking with three or more players on kickoffs. It is still legal to form two-man wedges.
Last season, the kickoff was moved to the 35-yard line and kickoff returns dropped from 80.1 percent in 2010 to 53.4 percent in 2011, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Also, touchbacks increased from 16.4 percent to 43.5 percent from 2010 to 2011.
“You would get into a lot of different personnel groupings that we already have, but you would actually use them more often,” Armstrong said.
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is not a big fan of the concept of removing the kickoff.
“Kickers are not 100 percent on getting touchbacks,” Jones said. “They can miss sometimes. That’s a big part of the game. That’s a very big part of the game.”
Also, several players make NFL teams by first showing what they can do on special teams.
“That’s eliminating a unit and also that’s jobs for other people to play,” Jones said. “That’s going to eliminate a lot of jobs for people, too. I’m with special teams. I don’t think they should take it out.”
Owens, one of the Falcons’ top special-teams performers, believes the coaches and players will adjust.
“If the commissioner changes the rule, that’s what we’ll go with,” Owens said. “You’ve got to adjust. That would mostly be on the coaches, and we’d just go from there.”
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