IRVING, Texas --As a proactive measure against injuries and specifically helmet-to-helmet collisions, the NFL approved a surprising rule change last March that moved up kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line for the first time since 1993.
Everyone expected touchbacks to go way up and kickoff returns to go way down. They were right.
As an appetizer for our upcoming special teams position series, here are some rather staggering supportive numbers:
*The Cowboys ranked 28th in kickoff returns with 33, down from 74 last year and tied for their lowest total in franchise history (excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season). They also had 33 returns in 1973, when only 14 games were played and the kickoff line was the 40.
*The league high in 2011 was the Jets' 62 returns, easily the lowest in the last 10 seasons. The previous league highs were 84 (2010), 96 (2009), 83 (2008), 82 (2007), 79 (2006), 84 (2005), 84 (2004), 84 (2003), 86 (2002). The Jets' 62 returns would have ranked T-17th, T-16th, T-17th, 20th, 18th, 23rd, T-21st, 24th and T-25 in those respective seasons.
*Now, the touchbacks. The Cowboys ranked 18th with 33 in 2011, their highest total in the last 10 seasons. Although rookie Dan Bailey did a solid job, the tally could have been even higher had David Buehler not missed the last eight games with a groin injury.
*The Saints led the league with 68 touchbacks. The previous 10 league highs: 40 (2010), 29 (Dallas-2009), 30 (2008), 22 (2007), 24 (2006), 23 (2005), 23 (2004), 24 (2003), 22 (2002). The Cowboys' 33 touchbacks in 2011 would have led the league from 2002-2009.
It'll be interesting to see if the rule is revisited by the Competition Committee this spring. One factor for continuing the 35-yard line will be whether injuries did drop as a result.