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Dave Toub weighs in on changes to kickoff rules

For once, the NFL may have found a way to make everybody happy.

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Change is a difficult thing to accept. When things are the same for a long period of time, we get used to them. So when they change, we tend to resist it.

For example: yesterday I spilled a soda on my computer keyboard. The new one I bought has some of the keys I frequently use in slightly different places, and it haa madr mu jife diggicult.

But lately, we never have time to even get used to change — at least not when it comes to NFL kickoffs.

For 54 seasons, kickoffs were from the 40-yard line. But then as kickers improved — resulting in more unexciting touchbacks — kickoffs were moved back to the 35-yard line in 1974, and back to the 30-yard line in 1994.

Then in 2011 — as the league finally started to worry about injuries to players in the game’s most dangerous play — the NFL sought to increase the number of touchbacks by moving kickoffs forward to the 35.

But even though the number of touchbacks increased, the rate of injuries on kickoffs didn’t substantially decrease. So in 2016, the NFL moved touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line — hoping that returners who caught the ball in the end zone (where most kickoffs now land) would simply take a knee.

That didn’t work, either. The number of touchbacks didn’t change appreciably, and players still got hurt too often.

Meanwhile, most sports columnists in America wrote tsk-tsk commentary pieces about how kickoffs were just going to disappear — sadly resulting in the death of the game as we know it — or that kickoffs must be eliminated before they destroy the sport we love.

So In 2018, the NFL is instituting the most impactful change in kickoff rules since its rulebook was first formulated in 1932.

In a nutshell, here’s what’s different:

On the kicking team, everybody has to line up within one yard of their own 35, and no one (except the kicker) can move until the ball is kicked. So the kicking team won’t have a running start.

On the return team, eight players must be between their own 40 and the opponent’s 45; only three may be further back.

Back in May, the NFL put out this slick animation — with a driving music track — to put it in graphic terms. I’m already more excited.

By eliminating the running start of the kickoff team — and bunching the return blockers closer together — injuries will almost certainly decrease, because players won’t be running long distances at full speed before colliding with each other.

But unlike previous kickoff rule changes, this one will likely make kickoffs more exciting, as it could decrease the number of touchbacks — at least according to Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub, who was one of the architects of the change.

“We think there are going to be more returns, because there’s going to be a lot of space back there now,” he explained. “You’ll have all eight guys up front, and not a lot of guys back. The returner’s going to catch the ball, and there’s not going to be a lot of guys right on him immediately, so he’s going to be more apt to want to take it out.”

This would seem to give an advantage to teams with returners who excel in the open field. It will be interesting to see if teams learn to keep a roster spot open for a player with those particular skills.

Chiefs rookie cornerback Tremon Smith — whose 4.3 speed and burst after the catch have prompted Toub to give him kick return reps in training camp — noted on Thursday that the new rules make kickoffs a lot more like punts. So one of the things that fans (and the league) will likely monitor is if there will be a rash of blocking in the back penalties on kickoffs.

Another part of the rule change is that the ball will be dead — and a touchback called — when the ball touches the ground in the end zone; it will no longer be necessary for a ball landing in the end zone to be caught and downed by a returner before a touchback is called.

In many cases, this will result in a whistle a second or two earlier — and those seconds could be critical. As Bill Belichick noted in 2016, injuries have sometimes occurred while players were going full speed, with no way to know a touchback was about to happen.

Toub isn’t sure exactly how teams will react to the change.

“We have a thought about what’s it’s going to look like, but we’ll know a lot more after even one preseason game,” he said. “We’ll look at everybody in the league, and there will be a lot of reps that will be happening there. We’ll get a good feel for it. And also how the referees will officiate it.

“I think there will be a lot of flags during preseason, until everybody figures it out,” he continued. “There will probably be some calls down from New York -- ‘no, we don’t don’t want that call, we want this call’ — until they iron it out, but that’s what the preseason’s for.”

Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker said that while his job won’t change, it’s still difficult for other players to adapt to the changes. “Trying to do the simple things right is a little more difficult — being on the 34-yard line, not getting a running start. So we’re working on all that now, but I feel really good going into preseason.”

Toub said that has a hunch or two about how it will play out.

“We have to figure out what other teams are going to try to do, so we can make matchups for them — like on a kickoff return, do we have to have faster guys up on the front line in order to be able to get back to block? That’s my hunch about what we’ll have to to do, so we’ve been practicing that.

“We’ve kind of got a leg up on the new rules, because we knew it was coming. So we’ve been practicing on it for a long time. We’re kind of looking forward to seeing it in live action, and see what happens.”

However it plays out, it’s good that the NFL might have finally figured out a way to reduce injuries and make the game more exciting.

What will the columnists have to complain about?

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