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O'HARA: How new kickoff rule affects Lions

The NFL's vote to add five yards on touchbacks – giving the receiving team the ball at the 25-yard line as opposed to the 20 – is seen by many as an attempt to reduce injuries at the expense of further diminishing the potential impact of kickoff returns.

It's a sound theory. Why not take a knee in the end zone and get the ball at the 25 rather than have the return man take the risk of bringing the ball out of the end zone?

Why risk being tackled short of the 25? Worse, why risk losing a fumble or sustaining an injury when you can safely let the offense start a possession at the 25?

All good theories, but in practice it remains to be seen if the rule adopted by the NFL owners on a one-year trial for 2016 will have any significant impact on the scoreboard.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was vocal in his opposition to the rule, apparently thinking a vital part of special teams is getting the boot.

"Do you want the kicking game in the game or not in the game?" McCarthy said to reporters at the league meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. "If it's in the game, let's kick it and return it, and let's play the play."

Another argument is that in its attempt to make the game safer, the new touchback rule might create more risk of injury if kickoff specialists use pooch kicks that land short of the end zone and give the coverage team an opportunity to tackle the returner short of the 25.

The kickoff return is a part of the romance and fabric of football. There is a gladiator element to the men who play on the kickoff teams – returners, blockers and the coverage units.

The pure violence created by high-speed collisions is what engendered names such as "suicide squad" and "bomb squad" for the kickoff units.

More to the point – scoring points, frankly – a look at the Detroit Lions' kickoff statistics for the 2015 season raises a real question about whether adding five yards on touchbacks will add points or simply take a potentially exciting play out of the game.

One man's opinion: rules that have dramatically changed kickoff returns already are in place.

Rules changes over the years that have changed blocking techniques and reduced the wedge from three men to two have made playing on the kickoff units somewhat safer.

However, no recent change has had more real influence than the change in 2011 that moved the kickoff up five yards from the 30 to the 35-yard line. Statistical comparisons are conclusive in that regard.

In 2010, with kickoffs from the 30, there were 23 kickoffs returned for touchdowns. In 2011, with kickoffs at the 35, nine were returned for touchdowns. There was a spike to 13 TD returns in 2012, but it leveled off to seven in 2013 and 2015 and six in 2014.

In 2015, Detroit Lions rookie Ameer Abdullah led the NFL in kickoff returns with 37 and was second with an average return of 29.1 yards.

In 2010, with the kickoff spot at the 30, Marc Mariani of Tennessee led the NFL with 60 returns – 23 more than Abdullah had five years later.

For kickers, the premium starting in 2011 has been booming the ball deep to eliminate returns.

In 2015, Graham Gano of Carolina led the NFL with 69 touchbacks. Kicking off from the 30 in 2010, Billy Cundiff led the league with 40.

And what will giving the offense five yards – from the 20 to the 25 – really mean in terms of scoring? One man's opinion – again – is not much, based on the Lions' stats in 2015 with one of the best return men in the league in Abdullah.

In 2015 the Lions began 43 possessions at their 20 on either touchbacks or kickoff returns. They scored nine touchdowns and six field goals. With nine successful extra-point kicks, that's 81 points, for an average of 1.88 points per possession.

On 14 possessions on kickoffs starting inside the 20 the Lions scored three TDs and two field goals for 27 points, or 1.92 points per possession.

One possession started at the 25 – the new touchback spot for 2016 – and the Lions scored a touchdown. Going one-for-one from the 25 is too small of a sample size to draw any conclusion.

On 14 other possessions that started beyond the 25 on kickoff returns, the Lions scored four TDs and a field goal, for 31 points. Another ended in a missed field goal, and one set up a long, game-clinching drive that ended in a kneel-down in a victory over the Raiders.

Realistically, that's 13 possessions with the intent to score, for an average of 2.38 points.

Also included in those 13 was Abdullah's 104-yard kickoff return to the one-yard line that set up a vital touchdown in the Lions' streak-ending road win over the Packers in Game 9.

Take away that return, and the numbers shrink to 24 points on 12 returns beyond the 25 – or 2.0 points per return.

If any conclusion can be drawn from the numbers – from 1.88 points to 1.92 to 2.0 -- it's that the big kickoff return is still a big part of the game. The question is whether teams will still try using it.

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