Punt rules overhauled

PAUL FRIESEN, SPORTS COLUMNIST

, Last Updated: 11:12 AM ET

Don't be surprised if 2007 is the year of the kick return in the CFL.

The league yesterday unveiled several rule changes, two of which are directly aimed at spiffing up a sagging return game.

Beginning this season, a punter will be penalized for kicking the ball out of bounds on the fly anywhere between the 20-yard lines. Punts flying out of bounds inside the 20-yard line will not be penalized.

BLOCK ON THE SIDE

"It is a significant change, and we think it'll encourage kick returns," CFL director of officiating George Black said during a conference call.

The league has also changed its blocking rules, allowing the return team to block on the side, but not from behind. That brings the rules to where they were before last season.

That the league went one step further, though, by encouraging teams to punt the ball in bounds, indicates a real urgency to kick-starting a return game that produced three touchdowns in 2006, compared with 18 the year before.

But instead of simply penalizing all out of bounds punts, the league settled on a compromise.

"It doesn't take away the art of kicking," Wally Buono, GM and head coach of the Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions, said. "A person on, say, their 50-yard line can still angle the kick at the one- or two-yard line."

Blue Bombers kicker Troy Westwood says the change should have the desired effect.

"It'll be good for the fans, good for the game, because a lot of teams do whatever they can to try and get the ball out of bounds," Westwood said. "It'll make the return game more lively."

The other significant changes are designed to protect quarterbacks.

From now on, defensive players who hit the passer at or below the knees will be penalized for roughing. Same with those who lead with their helmets.

"The only intent there, in my mind, is to hurt the player, which is not productive for anybody," Buono said.

While scoring in the CFL was at its lowest point in 21 years last season (46.7 points per game), the league didn't see fit to tweak any other rules that would open up the game, hoping changes to the kicking game are enough.

"That's going to result in short fields and more scoring," Black said. "Long drives are much difficult to muster in three-down football."

KEY CHANGES

- Punting the ball out of bounds on the fly, between the 20-yard lines: 10-yard penalty and re-kick.

- Blocking from the side on kick returns allowed.

- Hitting the quarterback at or below the knees: roughing penalty.

- Leading with the head when hitting the QB: roughing penalty.

- Tackling a player by the inside collar of his shoulder pads: roughing penalty.

- Hitting a long-snapper above the shoulders while he's still in the snapping position: roughing penalty.


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