NFL commissioner Roger Goodell addresses the media during the NFL's annual meetings at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans Tuesday.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEW ORLEANS -- In the NFL, safety has its price, as the league's owners voted Tuesday to curtail the chances to see one of the most exciting plays in the game.
Kickoffs returned for touchdowns almost surely will become rarer under a new rule that moves the spot of the kickoff ahead 5 yards to the 35-yard line. In 1994, the owners moved the kickoff from the 35 to the 30 to allow for more returns because kickers were routinely putting the ball into the end zone for touchbacks.
But, with the NFL's push toward more player safety, the kickoff return has now become politically incorrect because of the many injuries league fathers say are caused on the play in which both sides run into each other from half a field apart.
As a further concession, they no longer will permit members of the kicking team to line up any farther than 5 yards behind the ball so they cannot get more of a running start.
"We're always going to have player safety trump the competitive aspect of the game -- period," said Rich McKay, chairman of the league's competition committee which recommended the change.
Privately, the Steelers may be cheering because they have allowed five touchdowns on kickoff returns the past two seasons, a record four in 2009. The league, then, has done something the Steelers could not -- cut down on the potential for long kickoff returns.
"We've been told it's really a player-safety oriented rule, trying to reduce the number of kickoff returns," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
McKay predicted that where there were 80 percent of kickoff returns last season, the number could be reduced to 70 percent -- or more.
The owners also decided to possibly detract from the spontaneous excitement of its most basic goal, that of scoring. Whether it's a touchdown, safety, field goal or extra point, they all will come under automatic review by instant replay without a coach having to challenge a call.
No scoring play will become official until the referee receives word from the instant-replay booth whether or not the play needs to be reviewed. The concern expressed by Steelers president Art Rooney II the previous day fell on mostly deaf ears as his fellow owners overwhelmingly approved it.
Rooney thought it would not only take away the spontaneous reaction by fans but also make on-field officials hesitant to make a call knowing it would be subject to review anyway.
Among other action taken by the owners on the final day of their meeting:
• Tabled another player-safety rules proposal until their May 22-24 meeting in Indianapolis.
• Passed a rule that all playing fields be the color of green prompted by college fields that have blue (Boise State) and red (Eastern Washington).
Commissioner Roger Goodell said the abridged annual March meeting's "primary focus obviously was our labor dispute."
He repeatedly urged the players to return to the bargaining table, the company line proffered by management since the union ended collective bargaining agreement talks before a federal mediator March 11 and filed to decertify. That prompted the owners to enforce a lockout. There have been no talks over the past 12 days as the dispute winds through a federal appeals court in Minnesota and through a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board by management.
"I thought we made a lot of progress in mediation," Goodell said of that 17-day effort.
He also implied that management's final offer, made March 11, would come off the table before too long.
"Every day that goes by makes it harder and harder to keep everything in that proposal," Goodell said.
Despite the impasse, the commissioner said that "we are certainly planning on having a full season. That is our objective."
He said that using replacement players, as the league did for three games during a 1987 strike, "is not in our plans."