The NFL owners voted to alter kickoff and instant replay rules for next season (if there is a season), but tabled another proposal that involved a change of rules in penalties against defenseless players. While it is truly refreshing to talk about the NFL from a game playing standpoint, who would have thought that could occur with all the depressing lockout talk, we have yet another controversial decision made that could drastically change the game that fans have come to love so much. It seems like the “No Fun League” has really taken away everything the fans love whether it be hits on the quarterbacks, contact with wide receivers, helmet-to-helmet hits and now the kickoffs. What will be taken away next? Punt returns? Maybe even the forward pass? Fans can understand these attempts to make the game safer, but by moving the kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line it is now making it almost a walk in the park for kickers to boot the ball out of the end zone. Kick returners will become obsolete. For the few electrifying kick return specialists out there you better have made your money when you had the chance because now this aspect of special teams is getting taken away. The owners proposal to alter the kickoff passed, 26-6, and the vote for replay officials to review all scoring plays passed, 30-2. The competition committee and the coaches came together to agree that kick return teams are still allowed to have two man wedges. Leon Washington, an electrifying return man, who had 3 kick return touchdowns last year, weighed in with his take on the rule change. Leon Washington joined Brock and Salk on 710 ESPN in Seattle to discuss his first reaction to the kickoff rule being changed from the 30 to the 35-yard line, how will the rule change affect him, does this new rule change really protect kick returners and does he think another part of this decision had to do with owners not wanting to pay players like kick returners so much money when they could land on injured reserve at any moment.
As a kickoff returner yourself what was your first reaction to the NFL competition committee changing the kickoff rule and having the ball kicked off from the 30 to the 35-yard line?
“Oh they hating on me man. Come on now. You know I don’t like the rule. I’m sure sure Brad Smith and Devin Hester and Joshua Cribbs and the rest of those guys you know doing a good job returning the balls don’t like the rule. I mean it’s a part of the game that is really exciting. I think fans look forward to it because it’s an instant momentum change. You gotta think about it. It’s the first play of the game or the first play after halftime after the opposing teams scores, so it’s one of those things. I think the NFL is trying to figure out how can they minimize the injuries on the kickoff and kickoff return unit. Also like you said there might be some greed involved. I’m sure teams will try to adjust to it. I was telling my dad the other day you know it looks like there’s going to be a bunch of 109-yard kickoff returns because I plan on coming out of the end zone if that takes place.”
How will this rule change affect you?
“You know what, it’s going to take strategy for the coaches to come up with the plans to take advantage of the opportunities you do have. I think as a returner you really have to study the game, study the kickers, and try to approach the game from that angle. Hopefully it doesn’t go through [the rule change], but if it does special team coaches have to really prepare themselves and really game plan around how do you take advantage when you do have opportunities because early on in the season when the kickers legs are feeling good and strong enough they’re kicking them out of the end zone. Late in the season there are going to be a few chances when you do have opportunities, but it’s going to be really weird. I think it’s going to be like a team can only take a five yard start, the kickoff team. It’s going to be one of those things…what I imagine is going to happen is that a team is going to start blooping a lot of kicks and the bloops usually land on the 20-yard line. Now bloops are going to start landing on the 5-yard line and that’ll give a coverage team more time to get down field because the bloop kicks have more hang time so that’s one thing I could see the coverage teams try to do. I’m sure we will adjust to it, but hopefully it doesn’t go through.”
How does this new kickoff rule even protect the players because you’re giving more altitude for the players to come down faster and hit each other?
“Yeah exactly. That’s one thing. You know if you get a guy like Jay Feely. We play Arizona. He’s [Jay Feely] got a really good bloop kick. He bloops it to the 5-yard line and with a 5 second hang time you know most guys in the NFL run 4.5/4.6, 40-times, by the time I catch the ball they’re going to be right on me or they’ll be hitting the guy right in front of me trying to protect me, so it’s one of those things I think you know the owners and the GM’s have to think about the injury risk you know that people have on the special team unit and also the greed factor because if you don’t have to pay a returner or you have to pay a special teams guy for the amount of time it helps them out. It benefits them in their pocket long-term. Like I said before hopefully it doesn’t go through, but if it does teams will have to work around it. I also heard they were proposing to get rid of the wedge period. I mean when I first got into the league it was a three man wedge and then it went down to a two man wedge and now it’s going to be no wedge. If you look at that in that aspect that team’s offensive line that are usually in the wedge, so now those guys become expendable then you have more field position out on the field. It’s one of those things I think they really have to talk about it and evaluate how they want to do that because that’s really over the last six years special team have really become a big aspect of the National Football League and teams are more-and-more apt to really specialize in those type of units.”
Do you think another component of this is that the owners do not want to spend money on players who are hurt or even put on IR like kick returners?
“Yeah. I mean that could take into place. You gotta think the owners are better business men. They’re trying to save as much money as they can, trying to figure out how we can save money by playing this game. If you minimize injury you know you save money. You don’t have to pay guys on IR, and then if you come up with this rule especially on kickoff returns you can possibly have guys out there that you know on the unit and you’re paying them less money because all they’re really doing is running down and covering the kick because the kicker is going to kick it out of the end zone you don’t have to have valuable guys on special teams like [Montell] Owens in Jacksonville, or Kareem Osgood in Jacksonville, those guys are very valuable on special teams. Now you’re really saying we don’t need you to cover kicks anymore because the ball is going to be booted out of the end zone. You know also that punt returners are going to become very valuable now in National Football League if kick returns are gone.”