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Jerry Angelo disappointed by NFL kickoff rule change

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

NEW ORLEANS — Bears coach Lovie Smith didn’t want any changes made to what he called “the most exciting play in football.”

But hours before NFL teams voted on a handful of tweaks to kickoffs, Smith identified his chief concern.

“The part that we’re not OK with is moving the ball up to the 35-yard line,” Smith said. “The rest of it, we could live with.”

Much to Smith’s chagrin, the NFL voted to move the kickoff yard line from the 30 to the 35 and opted to keep two-man wedges and touchbacks at the 20-yard line.

Smith wasn’t available for comment after the vote Tuesday, but general manager Jerry Angelo downplayed the rule change.

“We’re disappointed that it went in the direction it went, given our situation,’’ Angelo said. ‘‘But it’s not necessarily about the Chicago Bears. It’s about the National Football League, and we understand, given the information we’ve been given the last two days, why they did what they did, and we’re very comfortable. “We’ll make some adjustments, but it’s still going to be a part of the game. I’m very confident that our coaches will do that.”

Six teams, including the Bears, voted against the rule change, falling three votes short of squashing it. But the league insisted that player safety was the chief concern.

Dr. Margot Putukian, a member of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee, said players are four times more likely to have head and neck injuries on kickoffs than any other play in football.

“There are a lot of injuries related to kickoffs,” said Putukian, the head physician at Princeton University, “and that’s all we know.”

The Bears, under Dave Toub’s tutelage, have one of the league’s best special teams. Last season, the Bears ranked second in kickoff-return average (25.4) and led the league with 10 returns of 40-plus yards.

“It really hurts the [Cleveland] Browns and the Bears and the teams with great return guys,” said Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a former special-teams coordinator. “The committee was torn on it.”

Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, insisted player safety superseded any other points. And that means something because McKay’s Falcons led the league with an average of 26.5 yards per kickoff return.

Smith said only one Bears player suffered an injury — an ankle sprain — on kickoffs in the last couple of years. But Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton seemed to approve of the league’s move.

“Kickoff return is dangerous — trust me,” Melton wrote on Twitter. “I was on it last year and saw a lot of people get knocked out. Not a bad rule change.”

Melton then apologized to Bears receiver Devin Hester, arguably the greatest return specialist in NFL history. He hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2007, but Hester returned five of his 12 kickoff returns in 2010 for 40 or more yards, averaging 35.6 yards per return.

“They have gone too far,” Hester told ESPN 1000 Tuesday. “They are changing the whole fun of the game. The fans come out, especially in Chicago, to see [returns].”

There will be more touchbacks, and teams will likely field faster players, Harbaugh said.

On Twitter, though, Hester told followers not to be upset about the rule.

“My run back [is] just going [to] be over a 100 yards now,” he wrote. “I hate them 90 something yard [returns] anyway!”

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