Impact of 2011 Kickoff Rule Changes Could Surprise Colts Fans and NFL Analysts

In March, the NFL owners voted 26-6 to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line back to its original position, on the 35-yard line. The decision prompted many analysts to lament that there would be “more touchbacks, less electricity,” and that it would be “less exciting.” The assumption is that some significant percentage of kickoffs would now sail into (or beyond) the end zone, and fans will see more touchbacks than electrifying returns by players like Chicago’s Devin Hester or Oakland’s Jacoby Ford.

But there’s another possibility… that kickers may actually go for height instead of distance on kickoffs in an attempt to pin returners deep. The opportunity is rich – defenders are now spotted an extra 5 yards to catch up to the returner, return teams can no longer employ the dangerous wedge block, and the kicker can convert the power he once used to kick the ball deep, and instead boot it high. Now that ill-fated kickoff against the Jets in last year’s Wild Card game looks much different… either McAfee boots it too deep for Cromartie to field, or he boots it higher, giving Hughes and others time to tackle Cromartie deep in Jets’ territory.

I predict that teams with particularly skilled kickers will take advantage of this opportunity against the Colts, a team not known for having a stellar return game. Imagine what Josh Scobee or Rob Bironas could do twice a year… each?! While they have won games with ridiculously long field goals, I imagine they have enough practice to send kicks to say, the 5-yard line… with back spin. Give the defense 5 seconds to run 60 yards (with a 5-yard running start), and they’ll likely force the fair catch most of the time.

And if the Colts don’t improve in kickoff coverage, the incentive for them is to always kick deep for touchbacks and avoid the big play. The net is potentially a sustained advantage in starting position for the opponent. Colts fans can turn to their “ace in the hole,” QB Peyton Manning, but they can’t hold that card forever.