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Proposed changes to kickoff rules hotly debated at CFL Combine

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If the CFL rules committee decides to tamper with kickoffs and returns, one long-time league executive and broadcast analyst believes it will tear into the fabric of the game and rip away a big part of what makes three-down football unique.

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“The whole thing makes no sense for our game,” Jim Barker said Saturday at the CFL Combine in Winnipeg.

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“In this situation I’m just not a fan of it at all.”

The CFL rules committee met at Winnipeg’s historic Fort Garry Hotel during Combine week and discussed the possibility of changing the rules regarding kickoffs and kickoff returns in order to improve player safety.

Discussions centred on two possible plans:

— Giving teams the choice of scrimmaging at their own 40-yard line after opposition touchdowns and not receiving a kickoff at all.

— Having teams line up differently for kickoffs — the teams would line up five yards apart in the receiving zone, with only the kicker standing behind the line of scrimmage — something that was used by the now-defunct XFL and is expected to be adopted by the NFL.

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The committee decided not to vote on the potential changes this week, but are expected to resume discussions in the coming weeks. There’s a possibility they will choose to study the potential changes, along with data on injuries resulting from special teams play, over the next year before taking a vote.

Barker, who has been in the CFL for 27 years as a head coach, general manager and now TSN analyst, said the kicking game is so much more a part of three-down football than four-down football that “We should not be following in their footsteps.”

“The injury thing? I don’t know the data, but I know it’s an exciting play in our game,” he said.

“Keeping the actual kicks and the actual covering and things like that, I think, are a crucial part of our game.”

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Unlike in the NFL, kickoffs in Canadian football produce returns on almost every play.

In the NFL most kickoffs sail through the end zone and receiving teams simply scrimmage at their own 20-yard line. It is certainly safer for the players on specials teams, because all the returners do is watch the ball sail over their heads and all the coverage teams do it take a hard jog down the field.

It is the furthest thing from exciting.

Canadian football has a long history of thrilling returns and returners, with memorable players such as Henry “Gizmo” Williams, Chad Owens and Brandon Banks — and more recently Janarion Grant and Javon Leake — making careers out of it, and bit players who have a chance to establish themselves as special teams tackling specialists.

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Many people involved in the game, and fans, believe it would be shame to see that part of the sport diminished.

Not everyone, however.

“I do know that the CFL takes it seriously and they present the injury data throughout the league,” Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters said at the Combine Saturday.

“From a kickoff/kickoff return standpoint, the rate of injury on that play is higher than an average offence or defensive play. That’s what the statistics show, so then the Health and Safety Committee has to sit and say “If this is, in fact, the most dangerous play, statistically, how do we make this play safer?”

Walters said even if the rules were changed to give teams the option of scrimmaging at the 40-yard line after touchdowns — something they already do after field goals and an option teams exercised 96% of the time last season — it would not completely wipe out the excitement of returns in the game.

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“You’ve still got the punt/punt return situation, with every punt essentially being returned and that’s still a huge difference between our game and the NFL,” Walters said.

“If it moves toward less kickoff and kickoff returns, that’s an exciting play removed, but if we can make our game safer it certainly has to be explored and discussed.”

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In the playoffs last year, Jack Hinsperger of the B.C. Lions and Peyton Logan of the Calgary Stampeders had a horrific collision on a kickoff return and both players suffered injuries.

There’s little doubt images of those two players lying unconscious or at least unmoving are still fresh in the minds of decision makers in the league.

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The CFL Players Association is also involved in discussions about rule changes and they have a delicate balance to strike — advocate for the improvement of player safety without potentially taking away jobs for players who specialize in returns or covering returns.

“That’s the double-edged sword of all this stuff,” Blue Bombers offensive lineman Pat Neufeld said while watching the Combine with his family. “It’s tough to navigate because there are livelihoods at stake and it changes the economy for certain players, how a roster is built and where importance is placed on a roster and where money goes to special teams’ guys.”

One of those special teams’ guys, Blue Bombers linebacker Shayne Gauthier, was also in attendance on Saturday and said any changes to the kicking game will be bad news for players like him.

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“There are a lot of guys, like me, that don’t want that to change,” Gauthier said. “That’s how we make our role in the CFL. I think that’s what makes our game so interesting, to have all those kickoffs. You get a chance to have big returns and I sure hope it stays the way it is.

“I sure hope they take more time to look at it, get more data on it.”

It sounds like the rules committee is considering just that and it’s the right thing to do with so much at stake.

“You also want our fans to still be engaged in this,” Neufeld said. “Special teams are so massive and so critical to our game and we want to make sure fans are still entertained.”

Twyman@postmedia.com

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