Philadelphia, PA – In Saturday's preseason opener against the yard line.
The Bears were in clear violation of a new rule that requires teams to kick off from the 35-yard line. The rule is intended to increase the number of touchbacks, thus decreasing the number of violent collisions between players.
Apparently Chicago had received permission from the game's officiating crew to kick from the 30-yard line, which had been the designated spot prior to the recent change. The Bears claimed they wanted to practice their kickoff coverage, though it is clear they also wanted to get a better look at their unproven rookies and undrafted free agents. After all, stellar special teams performances have become a reliable way for marginal players to make NFL rosters.
"That's how I ate my first three years," former Redskins and Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce recently told ESPN Radio's The Scott Van Pelt Show. "(Without special teams) there would be no Antonio Pierce sitting here talking to you today."
Pierce, a University of Arizona product, was signed by the Redskins in 2001 as an undrafted free agent. He played sporadically over his first three seasons, starting just nine games and recording 85 tackles over that span. He hung around, though, due in part to solid special teams play, and following an injury to Micheal Barrow, recorded 112 tackles as a starting linebacker in 2004. The Giants took notice and signed him in 2005, and a year later he was selected to the Pro Bowl. In 2007, he helped lead Big Blue win a Super Bowl championship.
Pierce owes his career, in part, to special teams. But under the new rule, he may have drifted out of the league after a season or two. So how many promising young careers will be extinguished this season, when players are robbed of a forum to showcased their talents?
Still, it's not just the players who expect to suffer. The fans must be taken into account as well.
Imagine no longer seeing Devin Hester swing momentum and change a game with one electrifying return. Or consider Antonio Cromartie, whose 47-yard runback set up the game-winning field goal for the New York Jets in last year's AFC Wild Card victory over Indianapolis. Under the new guidelines, Mark Sanchez and the offense likely start that drive from their own 20.
A lack of favorable field position also means offensive production will generally suffer. The Elias Sports Bureau says that in 2010, only 12 percent of drives that started within the 20-yard line resulted in scores.
So expect decreased production, a drop in electrifying plays and fewer game- winning drives.
The Bears' experiment wound up being brought to a hasty halt on Saturday. NFL vice president of officiating Carl Johnson was informed of the goings on and promptly made a call to Soldier Field. He told the zebras that the Bears had to kick off from the 35, citing players' safety as a primary concern.
Illuminating Johnson's point was the knee injury suffered by Bears defensive lineman Corey Wootton on the game's opening kickoff. He is expected to miss four weeks.
In reality, though, Wootton's injury could have occurred during any number of scenarios. If NFL owners want to remove violent collisions from football, why not start by eliminating crossing patterns? Or how about outlawing blitzes from a quarterback's blind side?
"You're taking away part of the game that's exciting," said Pierce. "I know it's dangerous. Every play is dangerous. Every time you take a snap. That's how my career ended, on one play. It wasn't on a kickoff."
To clarify, in 2009 Pierce suffered a burner in a Week 7 matchup against the Cardinals. An MRI revealed a bulging disc, which eventually spelled the end of the linebacker's career.
Of course, under the new rule, Pierce may have never had a career to begin with.