CHICAGO — The most noticeable rule change of 2011 debuted last weekend in Week One of preseason football - kickoffs from the 35-yard line.
Except at Soldier Field.
The Bears, one of the teams to vote against the new rule considering how dangerous Devin Hester is and how adept their special-teams units are, decided to throw a wrench into the new rule's coming-out party. They ignored it. Twice.
Lovie Smith and company opted to kick off from the 30-yard-line in their preseason opener against the Bills, after getting permission from the on-field officiating crew and their opponent. Only when an NFL official called Soldier Field to put an end to the noncompliance did the Bears kick off from the 35.
"They told us they were going to do it. They said they wanted to work on their coverage. They wanted to make sure there was a return and they wanted to see who could cover kickoffs," Bills head coach Chan Gailey said, seemingly having no problem giving his team a chance to return a kickoff.
"We know Robbie Gould. We can put it on the 35, and he can kick it out each time," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "We're not really getting a good evaluation of what we can do coverage-wise on some of our players. That's what we were trying to do with it."
In a cruel twist of fate, Chicago DE Corey Wootton injured his knee on the opening kick and missed the rest of the game.
The controversial rule was implemented to avoid the nasty collisions we've seen on kickoffs that have left some players seriously injured (Wootton apparently got hurt on a block in the side, not a collision). There were reportedly some teams willing to do away with kickoffs period, one of the most exciting parts of the game. For coaches, kickoffs are not just about electric return men — in the preseason, coaches need kickoffs to help separate player 53 from player 54, whether it is a coverage player or a blocker.
If the kicker is booming the ball into the endzone, all the coverage players can show is the ability to sprint a few yards and then run off the field. Heck, I could do that. Another way to make an impression in the preseason so as to make the team? As a return man. You're not making an impact by watching the ball sail over your head. Another thing that, despite my athletic deficiencies, I think I could do quite well.
Kudos to Smith, who is not known for his sharp decision-making abilities, for realizing that booming touchbacks doesn't do his evaluation of fringe players any good.
Through 15 games of the 2011 preseason, there were 43 touchbacks out of 130 kickoffs, a 33 percent clip. But you didn't see that on ESPN or NFL Network.
What you did see was that Chargers KR Bryan Walters took a kickoff 103 yards for a score. Washington's Brandon Banks had a 58-yard kickoff return, Jacksonville's Deji Karim an 84-yard return and Chicago's Johnny Knox a 70-yarder. All came in the first slate of games. But don't let that fool you into thinking the rule isn't having an impact.
Last regular season, 16.4 percent of kickoffs went for touchbacks. Even when teams want to get coverage teams extra practice this preseason, we already have seen a nearly 17 percent increase in touchbacks.
Maybe next week Smith will just take a delay-of-game penalty to make it less controversial. If the last player to make the Bears' roster made his mark on kickoffs, he will be very thankful for his coach's decision.