NCAA changed their kickoff rules to make the game safer. Should the CFL follow?

A rule change in American college football has got a CFL kicker up in arms – and fans asking questions as to whether the Canadian league could adopt something similar in the future.

The NCAA announced Friday the adoption of several rule changes, including one that will see s fair catch on a kickoff received inside the 25-yard line result in a touchback next season.

The change is aimed to reduce the number of injuries, which some experts feel are inordinately high on kickoffs. In the hopes of creating fewer returns and more touchbacks, kickoffs were moved from the 30-yard line to the 35 in 2012 and the starting position after a touchback was moved up from the 20 to the 25. Since then a popular strategy has developed where teams instruct kickers to kickoff high and often toward the sideline, short of the end zone, in an effort to pin the returner inside the 25. Now those kicks can be fair caught and instead of the ball being placed at the spot of the catch, it will be placed at the 25.

The decision caught the eye – and the ire – of Calgary Stampeders punter Rob Maver, who linked to a story on the subject via ProFootbalTalk.

The NFL moved their kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35-yard line in 2011 then moved the initial line of scrimmage up from the 20 to the 25 yard-line after touchbacks in 2016, both moves which were designed to lower the number of kickoff returns in the name of player safety. The CFL, however, has left kickoffs largely unchanged over the years with the exception of not forcing a team to re-kick after a kickoff goes out of bounds starting in 2015.

The CFL requires teams to kickoff from 35-yard line but because of the larger field – and the fact that a touchback results in a single point – most kickoffs in Canada are returned.  Of the 698 kickoffs in the CFL last season, 653 of them – or 93.6 per cent – were returned. Meanwhile, in the NFL, teams returned just 39.3 percent of kickoffs last season.

Based on the reaction on social media, some fans would like to keep kickoffs in the CFL game.

While kickoffs obviously play a role in field position, there isn’t a huge disparity between the teams. The Saskatchewan Roughriders had the best kickoff cover team in the CFL last season, allowing an average of 19.6 yards per return while the worst team was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at 23.9 yards – a difference of just 4.3 yards.

And while a long kickoff return can be exciting, there was just one kickoff returned for a touchdown all of last season (there should have been two, just ask Karen) and there were 29 kicks returned for 40 yards or more. Punt returns, by contrast, produced 13 touchdowns and 45 returns of 30 yards or more.

The CFL does not, as far as I’m aware, track injuries on offence, defence and special teams but a recent study in the NFL showed that “concussions are five times as likely to happen on kickoffs than on an average play.” Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy said that kickoffs are “by far the most dangerous play in the game.”

While the CFL game is obviously different – particularly with the wider field – there is certainly a trend away from kickoffs in football. With the CFL talking constantly about its desire to improve player safety, it would seem logical that kickoffs will be a point of focus sooner rather than later.