Lovie Smith rips kickoff changes

Updated: March 23, 2011, 9:42 AM ET
By Michael Wright | ESPNChicago.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Unlike Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo the day before, coach Lovie Smith didn't mince words Tuesday when expressing his disdain for proposed changes to the kickoff rules.

The proposal passed Tuesday when NFL owners voted to move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line starting next season. Touchbacks will remain at the 20-yard line.

Although the NFL's competition committee proposed modifications to increase player safety, Smith pointed out that the Bears have experienced only one injury -- a sprained ankle -- on kickoff or kickoff returns in the last two years.

"You just wonder how did we get to this point?" Smith said before the rule passed. "First off, I can't believe we're really talking about it, the most exciting play in football. You would think we would want to keep that in.

"We would work as hard as we could to try to make it safer, but to eliminate that to me is just kind of tearing up the fiber of the game a little bit. Yeah, we have a great returner. But that's a big part of the game. Our fans are probably more interested in coming there to see Devin Hester running a ball back as opposed to seeing a kicker kick it out of the end zone with no action."

The original changes to kickoff rules proposed by the competition committee would have moved the starting point on kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, moved touchbacks from the 20 to the 25 and eliminated all wedge-blocking schemes.

The competition committee tweaked the original proposal after widespread opposition Monday from coaches. Teams can continue to use two-men wedges.

The proposal was designed to increase the number of touchbacks and decrease the number of injuries on kick returns. The Bears are one of just eight teams in 2010 to have 10 touchbacks or fewer (5), and their touchback percentage (7.6) was third-lowest in the NFL.

The teams voted on the measure Tuesday, and the proposal needed a 75-percent yes vote from ownership to pass.

Hester is disappointed by the rule change.

"They're going too far. They're changing the whole fun of the game," Hester said Tuesday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "Fans come out -- especially in Chicago -- to see returns. That's one of the key assets to the team. Fans [like] our big returns. You take that out of the game, not only do they kick it out of bounds when it's time to punt the ball, 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."

Hester is considered by many to be the best return man to ever play in the NFL. Meanwhile, his return partner, Danieal Manning, leads the league since 2008 in kickoff returns of 40 yards or more.

"You know how I'm gonna respond to the question," Smith said before the vote. "We're totally against the rule. Teams that don't have a good returner, of course they're not for it. I know we're talking about player safety, but I don't know if that's making the game safer by eliminating [it]. You can say that about every pass play. Every play where there's a little contact you could say that. OK, yeah, I'm biased. [But] talking with our trainers, the last couple of years, we've had one ankle sprain on our kickoff return and kickoff team. So we haven't had injury."

Smith pointed out the potential for increased emphasis on strong-legged kickers that blast the kickoff out of the end zone.

"I'm all for making the game safer, but this seems like it's more than that. Before long, we'll start putting the ball on the 20-yard line -- starting the game that way -- and eliminating the play. That's what you're doing," Smith said. "You're putting more emphasis on the kicker. I like seeing our kicker Robbie Gould go out -- but to kick field goals -- not necessarily him being the focal point on the kickoff. For the fans, it's about the excitement of the game. That's an important play in our game."

Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.

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