Somewhat lost in the exciting, back-and-forth final quarter of Monday’s season opener was a strange moment that happened at the very end of the third.
The Jackets faced a second-and-10 after driving 52 yards to the Virginia Tech 21. On an option play to the right side, quarterback Tevin Washington made the correct read and kept for a two-yard gain. After the whistle blew, he picked up his helmet and ran back to the huddle.
The problem, as everyone soon realized, was that Tevin was ineligible for the next play.
Per a new NCAA safety rule, any player who loses his helmet for any reason other than a foul by the opposing team must sit out the following play. It was instituted largely to ensure that players make sure to tighten their helmets, something that the NCAA believes to be an issue.
The more immediate effect is that it removes key players from games, sometimes at key moments like this one.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Synjyn Days came in and gained four yards on a designed QB keeper, forcing a field goal attempt. It’s hard to say if Tevin would have done any better—Paul Johnson said he would have called the same play regardless of who was under center, and the Hokies defended the play well—but the fact remains that the Jackets were without their starting quarterback at a crucial moment in the game.
Other teams had it worse. Clemson, for example, saw quarterback Tajh Boyd lose his helmet three times in their opener against Auburn.
Maybe arguing against a head-protection rule is silly, especially given the recent (and completely legitimate) focus at the pro and college levels on player safety, but how much does this rule really accomplish from a safety perspective? In Tech’s case, Tevin’s helmet appeared to fall off only after the play was over, and in Clemson’s case, Boyd kept losing his helmet even after he tightened the chin strap repeatedly.
So what happened? Boyd implied on Tuesday that Auburn players tried to pull his helmet off. Alabama running back Eddie Lacy apparently said something similar in his team’s win over Michigan. It’s a sign of a rule with good intentions but bad execution when the rule is used as a weapon against the people that it’s meant to protect.
Through one week of play, the outcome of a game hasn’t been decided because of a key player sitting out due to the helmet rule. Let’s be honest, though: it’s only a matter of time until it happens.
That “helmet rule” was simply the most controversial of a slew of new safety-inspired rules instituted by the NCAA in the offseason. Of these, the most obvious was the set of changes made for kickoffs and kick returns. By rule, kickoffs will now be made from the 35-yard line instead of the 30, and touchbacks will cause teams to take over from the 25 instead of the 20.
Moving the kickoff to the 35 was fair; it’s a change that would at once increase the frequency of touchbacks and reduce the high injury rate on kickoff returns by slowing down the coverage unit. It’s the other part of the rule change, however, that’s questionable.
Here’s a quote directly from the original rule proposal: “The committee also voted to move the touchback distance on free kicks to the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line to encourage more touchbacks.”
This encouragement only works on one side of the ball. Sure, a returner who receives a kickoff three yards deep in the end zone is less likely to take it out now. But on the flip side, letting the offense receive five extra yards reduces the kicker’s motivation to force a touchback regardless of where the kickoff line is.
Really, those two rules seem to incentivize an entirely new strategy, one that’s been discussed at length but not really implemented anywhere yet.
Don’t be surprised if higher, somewhat shorter kickoffs start becoming a trend, especially among teams with top-notch special teams units. If executed properly, such a kick would let the kickoff coverage unit reach the returner quickly and drill him soon after he catches the ball somewhere around the 15-yard line. Just like that, the safety of the returner would be compromised, and the offense would take over well short of the 25.
The number of touchbacks did seem to go up in Week 1. But all it’ll take is two or three prominent teams trying out this strategy in a game and seeing some success in pushing opponents’ average starting spot backward by even five to 10 yards, and it could catch on in a big way.
Either way, the frequency of returns for touchdowns is going to drop, and drop quickly. In the NFL, there were nine returns for touchdowns in 2011 (the first year of the 35-yard kickoff line) compared to an average of 19 per year over the 2009 and 2010 seasons. If the NCAA really wants to make safety paramount on kick returns and “encourage more touchbacks,” they really should just eliminate kickoffs entirely and have teams start out at the 20 or 25. The effect would be pretty much the same at this point.
It’s one thing for the NCAA to institute more rules to increase player safety in an increasingly violent game. It’s another for them to use the pretense of safety to make odd rule changes that disrupt the game while providing little or no health benefits. The concussion debate won’t fade any time soon, but the college game won’t see much of a reduction thanks to anything its governing body did this offseason.