Kickoffs have been called football’s most dangerous play, and in the NFL they generated a heated off-season debate that resulted in changes aimed at making the game safer. Toronto Argonauts Swayze Waters kicks the ball during first half CFL action against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, in Toronto on Friday, June 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Kickoff controversy in NFL fails to make waves north of the border

Kickoffs have been called football’s most dangerous play, and in the NFL they generated a heated off-season debate that resulted in changes aimed at making the game safer.

And yet in Canada, they still open every CFL game amid no controversy.

“They’re different games,” said Jeff Reinebold, the B.C. Lions veteran special-teams coach. “The kicking game has been such an integral part of the Canadian game that there’s a tendency to kind of leave it alone because it’s so important while it’s been de-emphasized, frankly, south of the border for many reasons.

“The fact the American field is 15 yards narrrower and 10 yards shorter and the endzones are 10 yards shorter, the kicking game in general is handled and looked at differently in both games.”

Reinebold, 60, has extensive knowledge of both games. The native of South Bend, Ind., has 30-plus years of coaching experience on both sides of the border and Europe.

This off-season, the NFL adopted kickoff rule changes to enhance player safety. The new measures were aimed at reducing the number of high-speed collisions that occur during kickoffs.

The changes include:

— Kickoff teams must have five players on each side of the ball.

— Kickoff team players can’t line up more than one yard off the line of scrimmage, thus eliminating running starts.

— Wedge blocks are disallowed. Only players lined up in the setup zone can come together in a double-team block.

— The ball is dead for a touchback if it touches the ground in the endzone even if hasn’t been touched by the receiving team. The returner no longer must down the ball in the endzone to get the touchback.

Should the changes not do enough to reduce injuries, it’s been suggested the NFL could eliminate kickoffs. Reinebold said that would impact the integrity of the game.

“I’m a traditionalist and believe in keeping the game as much the same as we can,” he said. “I’m certainly an advocate for player safety because the players are the game … but I think there are other scenarios that have proven to be more dangerous than the kickoff.

“Again, we live in a time of litigation and we live in a time where those kinds of things become more and more controversial I guess is the right word.”

In Canada, kickoff team members can take a running start and wedges can be used by return teams, although it would leave the flanks vulnerable to speedy outside defenders. But chop blocks, peel-back blocks, cut blocks, crackback blocks and wedge breakers have all been outlawed, which Reinebold said has forced special-teams coaches to adjust.

“It’s really changed the way you have to structure your punt-return game because it’s difficult to have wall returns anymore,” he said. “Those blocks which sometimes were really physical blocks where as the wall went to the ball you’d get those peel-back blocks, they’ve removed those from the game so it’s changed the way you have to coach.

“And I think that’s part of what’s going on in the NFL. Special-teams coaches there are going to have to coach kickoffs and kickoff returns much differently.”

Special-teams collisions also occur in the CFL but many suggest the wider, longer field creates much different angles of pursuit that seem to reduce the number of dangerous hits. In the U.S., the narrower field places more bodies in a smaller space going at high rates of speed.

Reinebold believes the new NFL rules will force more kickoff returns this year. That’s because kicks will be higher and to an opponent’s one- or two-yard line, so cover teams will have time to get downfield and pin returners inside the 20-yard line.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said. “I’m really excited to watch how those guys are going to handle it, how creative they’re going to be.

“Teams the last 10 years were sometimes carrying a third kicker just because they wanted those touchbacks. Now I think you’re going to find guys who maybe don’t have that big leg but are very accurate with the ball and can place it in the corners and hit it with height will be at a premium … and it might lessen the lifespan of guys who can’t do more than just kick the ball into the endzone for a touchback.”

While Reinebold believes in player safety, he doesn’t understand why the CFL allows upbacks on punt teams to cut players trying to get to the punter. Football people say it’s so the blocker, who’s usually flat-footed, can protect himself and that on-rushing players can see the block coming because it must occur in front of him.

But that’s of little solace to Reinebold.

“Nobody will ever be able to explain to me how that’s different than a defensive back driving on a bubble screen and the receiver can’t cut him,” Reinebold said. “I shake my head and go, ‘Somebody please help me with this one because I’m not smart enough to understand how it fits.’

“They say that guy must defend himself but what about the defensive back? But, hey, that’s why they’re in their position and I’m still coaching punt coverages.”

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