It’s not often that the ire of a punter being raised gets followers of the gridiron game talking. Rob Maver, 2 time CFL all-star, however has got CFL fans debating his views. He responded unhappily to news of a recent US college rule change after the NCAA announced that any fair catch on a kickoff received inside the 25-yard line results in a touch-back from next season.
For some time administrators have been moving in this direction. They have been hoping to reduce returns and increase touch-backs in the name of player safety. With this in mind kickoffs were moved from the 30-yard line to the 35 in 2012 and the starting position after a touch-back was moved up from the 20 to the 25. It was thought this would decrease the number of returns and thus reduce injury risk.
However, since the introduction of these measures, a popular strategy has been for teams to get kickers to kickoff high and toward the sideline, short of the end zone, trying pin the returner inside the 25. Under the new rule those kicks could be fair caught and instead of the ball being placed at the spot of the catch, it will be placed at the 25.
It seems Calgary Stampeders kicker Rob Maver is not a fan of the potential changes, expressing himself in no uncertain terms via his twitter account, “Pathetic. Embarrassing. Laughable. The best game there is will soon be something none of us will recognise. What a joke.”
The change, of course, is driven by the belief that the number of injuries are disproportionately high on kickoffs. It seems unlikely that Maver is disregarding the potential injury of returners, rather that he is focused on how the rule change impacts the value of the kicking game.
As Maver is a punter, rule changes like this relating to kick returns in general are something he’s got a vested interest in after all. Such changes can impact on the value of a kicker to their team. Pinning a returner back is a skill that may not mean much if all fair catches bring the returner out to the 25 yard line anyway.
Unlike the NCAA and the NFL the CFL has left kickoffs largely unchanged for the most part 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 touch-back results in a single point, (the much-loved rouge), being scored most kickoffs in the CFL are returned. Of the 698 kickoffs in the CFL last season, for example, 653 were returned. This means that whilst in the NFL, teams returned just 39% of kickoffs last season North of the border it was happening over 90% of the time.
Despite that, only 29 of those 653 kicks were returned for 40 yards or more last season. It is the latter stat that makes some fans believe that kickoffs are so unlikely to be broken open, (in this case only 4% going over 40 yards), that reducing them wouldn’t take away all that much from the game, especially if an increase in fair catches on kick off would reduce injury rates.
Other fans however point out that it is entirely possible that, for example, passing routes going over the middle have a much higher probability of the play resulting in a concussion than a kickoff we just don’t have the research on it. Any rule changes in this area, they suggest, would be focused around how the player gets tackled. Some believe this is where the actual focus should be when looking at kickoff return rules as opposed to changing the structure of the game.
The 3 down game is obviously different to the NFL and the NCAA. The wider field in particular affects how these things play out. There is no denying though that safety measures are currently seeing a move towards a reduction in kickoff returns.
At the moment no changes have been made in the CFL on this. A lot of fans abhor the idea of the fair catch as not being in the spirit of the game. Yet the CFL talks a lot about wanting to improve player safety, so it would be of little surprise if this NCAA rule change isn’t at least a catalyst to spark debates about the safety elements of the kicking game.
We know Maver’s views. The fans have been debating them since, but it will be most interesting of all to see what other players, coaches and league officials have to say if the kickoff comes up for debate.