The Touchback Era Is Ruining the Game

Special teams used to have a major impact and serve as a proving ground for players and coaches. The new rules have turned the third phase of the game into an afterthought—and sucked some of the fun out of football

A touchback arguably is the most boring play in football. Because of recent changes in the rules, they have increased in frequency at an alarming rate. (Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
With recent changes in the rules, the frequency of touchbacks has increased, and special-teams units have been weakened. (Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Mike Westhoff retired this year after a 31-year run as an NFL assistant coach and special-teams coach. He spent the past 27 years with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, and he was known for terrific coverage teams, led by career special-teamers like Bernie Parmalee and Larry Izzo. In his first season out of the NFL since 1981, Westhoff, 65, who is working as an analyst on the Jets’ radio network, has studied special-teams play through a month of the 2013 season—and he doesn’t like how the kicking game is trending.

By Mike Westhoff

One of my former players, Chris Hayes, called me this week. He had a good career, seven years, as a special-teams player with the Packers, Jets and Patriots, and we’ve stayed in touch since he left the game in 2003. The first thing he said to me was, “Coach, where have the special teams gone?”

I knew exactly what he meant. When Chris played, the nucleus guys on your kicking teams used to get 20 to 25 plays a game, maybe as many as 27. Now, they might get five to eight … five plays a game on which special teams can make an impact the way they used to. That claim takes some explanation, because obviously players are out on the field for many more plays in the kicking game than five. And I will explain it.

Mike Westhoff became a household name when he played a central role in HBO's 'Hard Knocks' in 2010. He retired from the NFL after the 2012 season. (Getty Images)
Mike Westhoff became a household name when he played a central role in HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ in 2010. He retired from the NFL after the 2012 season. (Getty Images)

But here’s the simple way to look at it. Matt Prater kicks off for Denver. Obviously, with that explosive offense the Broncos have, he’s going to be kicking off a lot. But through four games he’s had 25 touchbacks and only eight kicks returned. That, obviously, stems from the rule the NFL put into play in 2011—moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line. Prater kicked for Denver in 2010 too. He had only 20 touchbacks all season then. In 2010 he had 63 percent of his kicks returned. This year, only 24 percent of his kicks are being returned.

Is that good for the game? I don’t think it is.

Now let’s look at the other side of the ball for the Broncos. Their kick returner, Trindon Holliday, is one of the most exciting players in football. We all saw him light up Baltimore in the playoffs last year. And he’s got two special-teams touchdowns (one kick return and one punt return) already this year, with the rules as restrictive as they are. Even more amazing? Holliday has had a chance to return three kickoffs this season; the rest were touchbacks. So this play that gets stadiums going crazy and can change the momentum of a game in an instant (one of his three returns was a 105-yard touchdown), this play that gives Holliday a chance to make an NFL Films memory, has been mostly eliminated. Three kick returns for Holliday in four games.

Is that good for the game? I don’t think it is.

We’re in the entertainment business, and the league has taken away a lot of the entertaining plays.

I’ve got an idea to make Trindon Holliday and Devin Hester and the new kid in Minnesota, Cordarelle Patterson, impact players again—every Sunday. But let’s get to the crux of the matter first.

I understand why the NFL wanted to make some of the rules changes it has made on special teams. It’s not just the kickoff rule, where the NFL was trying to eliminate some of the big collisions that caused concussions and neck and back injuries. It’s also the rule protecting the center on extra points and field goals. Now you can’t line up over the center and crash into him before he’s able to protect himself. And you can’t push the pile either, creating the kind of force on the interior blockers on extra points and field goals that wasn’t good for the health of centers and guards. I get the rules. And I don’t want to damage football. But, with the kickoff rule, what I never understood is how the league could go from A to Z without trying some intermediate steps to make sure the excitement of the kickoff stays in the game.

Think of erasing players like Tasker, Parmalee and Izzo from football history. That’s a very big loss for the sport.

The byproduct of this is something no one seems to be paying attention to. Teams aren’t emphasizing special teams in the past two or three years when they fill out their rosters, for a very simple reason: There aren’t enough impact plays in the course of a game for a coach and general manager, when they’re cutting the roster, to keep a guy who may be nothing more than a backup at a certain position but who would be a great guy covering kicks or blocking punts.

What I worry about when I see the diminished impact of special teams on NFL games today is this: Would Steve Tasker or Bernie Parmalee or Larry Izzo have had careers in football today with these rules? Steve’s one of the best special-teamers of all time, and Bernie and Larry aren’t far behind. Think of all the games they won, or had huge impacts on. And think of erasing them from football history. I just think that’s a very big loss for the sport.

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25 comments
madmac63
madmac63

This is a really dumb idea.  You say "block in close quarters", but really, you're giving the coverage team a 10 yard running start to then hit the return team blockers, who will be standing still.  And it's easier to run around people with a running start.

If this was the most effective way to block people, teams would do it already, but they don't.  They put 5 up front and have them retreating ASAP, once it's not an onsides kick.  

So basically, you're letting the coverage team fly down the field to hit a return guy and 2 blockers.  They'd get killed.

If you want to make Special Teams more interesting, the way to do it is require that the Kicker be on the field for the previous play.  Eliminate the "specialist kickers", or make teams give up a spot on 3rd down for their Kicker to be on the field so that they can kick on 4th down.

Personally, I'd rather see someone from the offensive team do the kicking, especially PATs.  They are so automatic for the Specialist Kicker.

miketheqb
miketheqb

I like the proposal specifically because it is that: a proposal. I can't say for sure that this is "the fix", but I applaud the idea of putting forward a potential solution, rather than just complaining. I would say that this, and the tweaks suggested by others below, are at least worth looking at. The NFL could use a dedicated "farm system" (the NCAA is not affiliated correctly to perform this role) for 1) developing longer-term project plaers, and 2) as a great incubator-type place for studying proposed rule changes like this.

PiasBrick
PiasBrick

I'm tired of hearing anybody complain about kickoffs being at the 35 yard line.  Why?  because they used to be at the 35 yard line to begin with - It was in 1994 that the NFL moved them back from the 35 to the 30.  Yes, it created more excitement on special teams; however, the NFL found that with the 30 yards line experiment that they had also increased injuries.  So, all they did was move it back to when it was to begin with.  So all you crying about it, go find yourself a pacifier and change your own dirty diaper you bunch of babies.

RickyFohrenbach
RickyFohrenbach

Some of the most memorable NFL plays in my youth were kick or punt returns. Desmond Howard for the Packers in the 1996-97 Super Bowl... Kevin Dyson with the "Music City Miracle" against the Bills when I was 12 years old... Ron Dixon scoring what I think was the only TD for the Giants when they got blown out by the Ravens in the Super Bowl a dozen years back... I could go on and on.

Special teams are an exciting part of football! I understand the NFL's desire to eliminate injuries (or rather, their desire to appear as if they care about players' safety). But reducing the importance of clever & dynamic special teams play is not the answer.

Chip
Chip

I like the "new kickoff" diagram, but I think I'd make a couple of small changes:

(1) The "ball is live" area should start at midfield and be 15 yards deep (from the 50 to the kicking team's 35). Therefore, the area that an onside kick can be recovered is the kicking team's side of the field. It gives the receiving team more flexibility in how it wants to arrange its players, since they have a 15-yard zone to work with. It also gives the kicking team some additional space to work with - but not too much - if they attempt an onside kick.

(2) I'd also at least consider one other option (borrowed from the CFL): if the receiving team catches the ball in the endzone and does not run it out - or lets it land in bounds and bounce out of bonds in the endzone - the kicking team gets a point. However, if the kicking team kicks it past the endzone (it never lands in bounds), no point is awarded (it's just a touchback). Since the start of the kick has been moved back to the kicking team's 25, this can work.

nyhoukcdal
nyhoukcdal

Maybe they could try a soccer-like onside rule - Prior to the kick, coverage teams can be as far downfield as the last line of blockers, but they can't go past them until the ball passes them.  Would reduce speed-of-colliision injuries, plus add strategy to both sides (how to distribute players on the field).  The drawback is the onside/offside judgment call the officials will have to make.  (I realize an exact copy of soccer's procedure would not work for football - the specific rules would have to be worked out - I'm just suggesting a way to reduce the running injury element while adding back some incentives for coaching the special teams side of the game.)

realnrh
realnrh

I'd sooner eliminate the extra point as a separate play. Make it part of the kickoff instead; if the ball is downed inside the end zone, or hits in the end zone and then goes out, it's worth one point and the ball goes to the 20 yard line. If the ball does not land in the field of play (including the end zone), then it's no point and the ball goes out to the 40, just as if it had gone out of bounds before reaching the end zone. This would make it more important to not simply power the ball into the stands on kickoffs, but also encourage kick returns to be run out rather than giving up an extra point. Make it two points if the ball goes through the uprights on the kickoff, to preserve the possibility of the two-point conversion.

2001mark
2001mark

I'm glad this is a 'thing' being discussed because these inane touchbacks has become a complete waste of time, waste of time to play, & waste of time to watch.

I admire the fix presented but wouldn't such an idea inflate the actual number of medium to large returns?  Not only pulling the ball's liftoff point back, but shifting the blocking schemes back (like soccer offsides) creating too much returns space? 
Would we really want most series starting at the 40 to become normal?  That would be close to NCAA overtime.

JimKirkwood1
JimKirkwood1

I thought it was being discussed that kickoff and punt returns were sufficiently dangerous that modifications might be needed - at least at the pro level

DavidBurgess
DavidBurgess

You could just get rid of the touchback and go with a single point for kicking into the end zone. At least the way points are scored would make sense then. It has never made sense to me to have no scoring play for a single point (other than after a TD). #cflisbetter

stahmosh
stahmosh

Not sure if this defeats the purpose of the new rules, but:

Create a "gray area" 10 yards deep into the end zone.  Make a rule like the out of bounds on a kick rule, such that it's a penalty if the kick goes deeper than the first 10 yards into the end zone.  This would seem to increase the chance of a return

jhymas25
jhymas25

I'm a big fan of special teams play and would like to see it come back, but I do have a concern about this proposal. How would the treating the kick like a punt affect this? It seems it would eliminate them. They don't happen that often but are a big part to the game still. Something should be done to increase the importance special teams again, but in increasing the more exciting kick off returns, onside kicks have to be able to stay. 

Also does anybody know of a source that is tracking year-to-year injuries in the NFL? The rules are changing yearly to make the game safer and I was wondering if there is info to support which rules have had the best effect. 

giwan1259
giwan1259

The new kick off does mean something. It means you don't have to come back to see it and the coming commercial

28AllDay
28AllDay

The point about the McCluster return seems to contradict (or at least partially alleviate the problem from) the point raised before it. There may be way fewer opportunities for kick returns, but if the coverage teams are far less competent to stop them when they happen, then how much drop off is there in the excitement overall?

That said, I do find the kickoff proposal pretty interesting. I'd have no problem with it being instated.

BY
BY

Great article by a great coach and a man who clearly loves the game. Let's go ahead and make the kick-off team start right behind the 25. The return team does not get the advantage of a running start, neither should the KO team.

taxexpert
taxexpert

I love this idea for kickoffs!!!   I hope the NFL adopts it.  It minimizes the injury risk and adds excitement back into the game.

cannondaler
cannondaler

Much like exaggeration has ruined journalism.

AndrewJHamm
AndrewJHamm

Speaking as a guy who still wears a #30 Brian Mitchell Redskins jersey some weeks, I absolutely agree. The game is better when kick returns mean something. It seems like we're one owners-vote away from just starting every drive on the 20. That would be a shame.

miketheqb
miketheqb

@PiasBrick Do you actually like watching kick-offs right now? If I have PVR'ed the game, I fast-forward through kickoffs, because the outcome is basically pre-ordained.

nyhoukcdal
nyhoukcdal

@stahmosh The end zone is 10 yards deep already.  If your idea is to penalize a kick that lands (not rolls) out of the end zone (deep or wide), fine.  This would force kickers to be a little more conservative with power and maybe produce more returns.  But, this does not address the league's issue of trying to reduce injuries they associate with full speed running on coverage teams.  

Josh H
Josh H

@jhymas25 the ten yards where it said "ball is live" would be your onside kick zone.  If the ball goes past that, the coverage team could only down it, not recover it.

DanKushnir
DanKushnir

@Josh H @jhymas25 Which would lead to a whole lot of onside kick attempts where the receiving team does not touch the ball and allows it to roll/bounce past the 10 yard "live" zone since the kicking team could no longer recover it.  Thus making the chances of recovering an onside kick even smaller.

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