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updated: 3/22/2011 8:13 PM

NFL removes one of its most exciting plays

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It already had reached the point where defensive players couldn't even give quarterbacks, especially the Patriots' Tom Brady, a dirty look without getting flagged.

Now the NFL has moved to curtail one of the most exciting plays in the game -- the kickoff return -- and replaced it with one of the most mundane plays -- the touchback.

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With Tuesday's decision to move the kickoff spot up five yards to the 35-yard line, the league essentially has done what most opponents could not -- take impact players such as Devin Hester, Johnny Knox and Danieal Manning out of the game.

There isn't a kicker in the league who cannot routinely boot the ball into end zone from 65 yards away. In 2010, 16 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

That number is expected to at least double next year, meaning one-third of all kickoffs will result in essentially a nonplay.

In terms of sheer excitement, the touchback ranks right up there with the intentional walk in baseball.

"They're going too far. They're changing the whole fun of the game," Hester said Tuesday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show."

"Fans come out -- especially in Chicago -- to see returns. That's one of the key assets to the team. Fans (like) our big returns. Not only do they kick it out of bounds when it's time to punt, now you get the disadvantage on kickoffs.

"We felt we were guaranteed (a chance) on kickoff returns, and now you're taking that away. It's like you're taking the whole return game out of the picture."

Even worse, the owners voted to keep touchbacks at the 20 rather than put them on the 25, which was considered.

The new rule is especially harmful to the Bears, who have three quality returners and one of the best special-teams coordinators in Dave Toub. Now, even the best return scheme is useless if the kickoff is unreturnable.

"It's going to help teams that aren't real good at kickoff coverage," Toub said on the Bears' website. "They're going to be able to kick more touchbacks. Touchbacks are a good option for them or for anybody playing us. That's a win for them."

And it's a loss for the Bears. Toub's return teams have been among the NFL's best for the past five years. Last season the Bears' average starting position after a kickoff was the 31.5-yard line, tied with the New York Jets for best in the NFL.

Hester returned 2 kickoffs for touchdowns in 2006 and again in 2007, plus the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI. Manning led the NFL in 2008 with an average kickoff return of 29.7 yards. Knox was second with a 29.0-yard average.

The rule not only robs the Bears of one of their best weapons, it makes for a less exciting game. Last year there were 23 TDs on kickoff returns. The last time the NFL kicked off from the 35-yard line, in 1993, there were 4.

The proposal by the competition committee, which needed a 75 percent majority, passed by a 26-6 vote.

As for the no votes, competition committee chairman Rich McKay said: "The objections were, 'Hey, you're affecting my team.' Clearly, some teams have good kick returners and they said, 'What if there's 10 percent less returns?'

"We have no answer," McKay added, "but player safety will always trump any other consideration."

Right, the owners are so concerned with safety they want to add two more regular-season games. And the 10 percent figure is bogus. Try more like 20 percent -- at least.

If McKay and the competition committee have their way, the next step will be to add pink dresses for all quarterbacks and make it two-hand touch on kickoffs.

rlegere@dailyherald.com

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