Based on the explanations provided after the votes were tabulated, one was done in the interest of player safety and the other in a quest for competitive fairness.
The NFL owners wrapped up their spring meetings yesterday in New Orleans, and two of the things to come from those sessions were rules changes to kickoffs and the use of instant replay.
The changes to the procedure for kickoffs will be as follows: the ball now will be kicked from the 35-yard line, and all members of the kicking team must line up between the 30-yard line and the 35-yard line.
In 1994, the owners approved a change in the kickoff rule that moved the ball from the 35-yard line back to the 30-yard line, with the stated intention at the time being to increase the chances of kickoff returns, which can be among the most exciting plays in any game. This latest move almost certainly will reduce the number of kickoff returns because of the leg strength of modern NFL kickers, and it can be expected to make returning kickoffs for touchdowns even more difficult.
Rich McKay is the chairman of the NFL Competition Committee, and he offered the most succinct explanation for the changes to the kickoff rules. "We're always going to have player safety trump the competitive aspect of the game – period," is how McKay was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Competition Committee had proposed a multi-pronged change to the existing kickoff procedures, and that included moving the kick to the 35-yard line, the alignment of guys in coverage regulated to no more than 5 yards behind the ball, and the abolition of the two-man wedge used by return teams, with the give-back seemingly being the placement of the ball at the 25-yard line for touchbacks.
Once voted upon by the owners, the two-man wedge is still permitted and touchbacks will remain at the 20-yard line. The spot of the kick and the change to the alignment of the kickoff team were adopted for the 2011 season.
The change in the replay rule proposed by the Competition Committee called for the review of all scoring plays – touchdowns, field goals, extra points and safeties – to be done automatically by the replay assistant up in the booth. If the replay assistant believes something irregular occurred, he then will signal to the referee down on the field, and then the referee will review the play and determine whether the scoring play will stand or be overturned. This procedure – the initial review by the replay assistant who then contacts the on-field referee – is the same one currently employed in the final two minutes of each half of every game.
According to published reports, coaches were in favor of this change because some didn't believe they were getting fair access to replays on the road. This replay change was approved by a vote of 30-2.
"It's a real big competitive disadvantage," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh told the Associated Press. "You don't get that look at it on the road that you get at home; they just don't show it."
There was one proposal that was adopted unanimously, and that was to give the Commissioner sole power to approve or deny any requests to change the color of the playing field from green. In college football, Boise State plays on a blue artificial turf field, and the one on which Eastern Washington plays is red. The concern was that sponsors would approach a team and entice it to change its surface to something other than green, and the unanimous vote of the owners squelched that.