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Kickoff rules changed, Bears will adjust

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Kickoff rules changed, Bears will adjust

Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Posted: 2:01 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

The rules are changed, as expected, and now come the adjustments.

The NFL will move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, meaning more kicks into end zones and therefore more touchbacks, which still will come out to the 20-yard line, rather than the 25 as had been proposed.

The league is reducing the number of kickoff returns, unquestionably one of the more electrifying plays in the game, in the interests of reducing the number of injuries from high-speed collisions. Along with those changes, members of the kicking team are allowed no more than a five-yard run-up as their kicker puts his foot into the ball. At the other end, no wedges involving more than two blockers will be permitted.

It wasnt exactly what the Bears wanted, but theyll live with it.

Obviously, our agenda would have been to leave it like it is but we understand the big picture, Bears GM Jerry Angelo told CSNNE.com colleague Tom Curran. They laid out some facts to us and in the best interest of our game and the best interest of our players, this was the best result. We understand it, it's part of the game and we're still going to have kickoff returns. I see it as an adjustment, nothing major.

Major is of course a relative term, and if youre among the NFLs best on kickoffs, as the Bears are, it could be major if it dulls an edge the Bears hold with Devin Hester and Danieal Manning returning kicks.

There are other teams with excellent returners too and all the sentiments were fleshed out by all the teams but we understand the big picture on it, Angelo said. We feel good about the rule and what it will do for the safety of our game. It's still going to be a dimension. It's not going away.

Neither is replay. In fact, its going to get better.

Coaches no longer will need to risk replay challenges for reviews of scoring plays. Those will be automatically subject to review, which should have been the case all along. Consider that an overdue good tweak of a rule intended to get it right.

Back to the kickoffs...

You do wonder if the league will do away with the K balls introduced in 1999 to shorten kicks and go back to letting kickers doctor footballs. Probably not but its a thought.

Robbie Gould told CSNChicago.com that he isnt sure that the game has seen the end of spectacular kickoff returns. Because of the closer launch point (the 35), the temptation will be to drill balls well into or out of the end zone, and that necessarily means lower, driving kicks.

That means returnable kicks. And because touchbacks will still come out to the 20, bringing the ball out of the end zone will clearly still work for the best.

Right now the longest kickoff return is 108 yards, by Ellis Hobbs for New England against the Jets on Sept. 9, 2007.

You read it here first: The Longest kickoff return record will fall in 2011 when someone (Manning or Hester are my co-choice) brings one out from nine yards deep. Some well-meaning kicker will be a yard short of target with a low line drive that the Bears returner will field, knowing that no one from the coverage team is closer than the 20. Coordinator Dave Toub will roll his eyes and HesterManning will just plain roll.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.