- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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The New York Jets, one of the most prolific kickoff-returning teams over the past decade, supported a new rule that could diminish their own strength.
The Jets were one of 26 teams that voted Tuesday in favor of moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, a league source told ESPNNewYork.com. Six teams voted against it. The change will increase the number of touchbacks and reduce the number of returns. Brad Smith led the NFL last season with a 28.6-yard average.
Team officials at the owners' meetings in New Orleans weren't available for comment after the rule change was announced. Special teams coach Mike Westhoff, reached by ESPNNewYork.com, expressed mixed feelings.
Westhoff said he's in favor of player safety, ostensibly the reason why the change was made, but he also acknowledged it will cut down the number of returns.
"I don't have enough data, so I'm not going to question it, but I'm 100 percent sure of this: I love the play," Westhoff said. "It's one of the most exciting plays in football. There's a lot of strategy and a lot of innovation. It's something I take a lot of pride in. It's a big part of the game and a big part of our game.
"I don't like seeing it taken out of the game. I liked it the way it was. It was a great play. I'm never going to be against player safety -- I'd be the guy that wants to beat up Mother Teresa -- but this will dilute it. If they wanted to [reduce] the number of kickoff returns, this will do it."
Speaking to reporters before the vote, coach Rex Ryan didn't seem opposed to the change. He admitted that "we have some guys with return ability, so you'd kind of like to see it stay the same." But he also called Westhoff one of the best special-teams coaches in history and said he'd figure out a way to adjust.
Ryan seemed more concerned with maintaining the two-man wedge and keeping touchbacks spotted at the 20 instead of the 25 -- a sentiment shared by other head coaches. In the end, the touchback spot and the wedge rule remained the same.
Aside from kickoffs moving to the 35, the league voted to adjust the running starts for the coverage team. Previously, players could get a 10- to 15-yard start before the kicker made contact with the ball. Under the new rule, they will only get a 5-yard running start. That should help the kickoff returners.
For years, the Jets have boasted one of the best kickoff-return units. Since 2001, when Westhoff took over the special teams, the Jets have scored 14 touchdowns. Smith scored twice last season, and you could make the argument that the most important play of the season was a kickoff return -- Antonio Cromartie's 47-yarder in the AFC wild-card game. That set the table for the last-second win over the Colts.
Westhoff, known for his innovations, already is tinkering with ways to combat the new kickoff rule. Anticipating the rule change, he started a week ago.
Interestingly, he used a scheme in that Colts game that could be a preview for 2011. Expecting a deep kickoff inside at Lucas Oil Stadium, he put Cromartie five yards deep in the end zone, with a two-man wedge at the 3-yard line.
"There will have to be some new strategy, so we'll have to adjust," he said. "I'll figure something out."
The Jets were one of 26 teams that voted Tuesday in favor of moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, a league source told ESPNNewYork.com.