In Sports

Due to rule changes, fewer returns are coming off Mason Crosby's kickoffs. (PHOTO: Jim Biever/Green Bay Packers)

A year after rule change, Packers insist kickoffs still a focal point

On March 22, 2011, the National Football League forever changed one of the most dynamic elements in its game when it moved kickoffs to the 35-yard-line.

It was "just" a five-yard difference, but it proved to be enough for kickers to consistently reach the back of the end zone and force more touchbacks, limiting returns. The move was made to increase player safety.

Collisions on kickoffs, often the most violent in the game, would be reduced.

A year later, the NFL Players Association said the change did just that.

"Down the road there are major consequences if the players aren't looked out for and I can understand that," said Packers defensive back Jarrett Bush, a seven-year veteran who has spent much of his career participating on special teams. "On kickoff we run full speed and people were banging heads. It was a part of it. They shortened it up so kickers can kick it out of the end zone and eliminate that play. At the same time, you're saving brains down the road from being traumatized.

"It's their rule and they geared it for player safety, so you can't really fault it. At the same time, you are taking away part of the game. But it's for the better good down the road for players."

The better good has lessened opportunities for returns however, and therefore some excitement. In 2009, 14 different teams ran kicks back for 18 scores. In 2010, 16 teams accounted for 23 kick return touchdowns.

Last year, nine teams scored one time each on kickoffs.

"The opportunities are obviously taken down, but you see us take out three or four balls out of the end zone, so I don't think they've taken that aspect of the game away," said Packers tight end Ryan Taylor, who participates almost solely on special teams. "It's a game changing play any time you can start a drive at the 30, 40, 50 or score a touchdown on it. I think you still see six to eight kickoff returns a game, so even though they've taken some of it away it's still a huge part of our game."

The rule change, along with the elimination of the traditional wedge blocking scheme, may be having another effect as well. Fewer returns begin to marginalize the play entirely; to the point where New York Giants owner John Mara said the next step may be eliminating it altogether.

Careers could be shortened, or never get going, if that part of the game is eliminated, but players feel there is enough variety on kickoffs to warrant the roster spots and its place in the game.

"There are other aspects, like if the ball is kicked short or the ball is sky kicked or the onside," Bush said. "There is that part of the game, but they just eliminated a small portion of it. If the ball is kicked deep, a lot of times it's going to be a touchback. They changed the rules, and we just play football. People make a living but there are other aspects of special teams. People can still make a living on special teams, but the kickoff has been taken away slightly."

Matthews supports school grant: Green Bay Packers Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews and Muscle Milk will provide a Wisconsin high school athletic program with up to a $25,000 grant as part of the Muscle Milk Recovery Grant Program.

"I'm excited to be able to support high school sports, especially locally in Wisconsin," Matthews said in a statement. "The community here has always been supportive of me, and this is a great way I can join Muscle Milk in giving back to the next generation of athletes."

The Muscle Milk Recovery Grant Program will provide $250,000 in grants to help rebuild and revitalize high school athletic programs around the country. One high school in Wisconsin will receive up to a $25,000 recovery grant as part of the program on behalf of Muscle Milk and Matthews.

Applicants must be at least 14 years old and can nominate the high school of their choice on the Muscle Milk Facebook page where they will be required to submit a written statement outlining their program's needs, provide photos that support their request and will have the option to upload a video link to help further tell their story.

Applications will be accepted through Nov. 30, 2012 and the selected Wisconsin high school will be notified in January 2013.



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