Microchips in footballs, what will they think of next?

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Note: This is my Crunch Time column that was published in the July 21 issue of the Cheney Free Press

In an effort to make football more exciting for fans, the NFL is looking at ways to increase the difficulty of the kicking game. One idea that has been brought up over the years is narrowing the width of the goal post uprights, which is currently at 18 feet, 6 inches.

But this isn’t something league officials are going to hammer out overnight. They are taking more of a methodical approach to it.

According to a story on NFL.com, the league is thinking about planting microchips into footballs during preseason games.

If the preseason experiment goes well, NFL senior vice president Dean Blandino, in an interview with the Toronto Sun, said microchips could be installed in footballs used in Thursday night games during the regular season.

The idea is the data, with accompanying software, would record how close each kick comes to the goal posts, as well as help project how many additional kicks would be missed if the uprights were closer together. Data would also show the distance by which kicks clear the crossbar.

At the end of the season, the NFL’s competition committee would gather the data and determine whether or not to shorten the distance between the goal posts. The committee would also determine the right distance in shortening the goal posts.

If the committee determines that narrower goal posts are the way to go, teams could see them beginning in 2017.

The league used goal posts with a 14-foot width during the 2015 Pro Bowl. Although the league continued to use the standard goal posts after the Pro Bowl, there was always a chance officials could bring them back.

The narrower goal posts would be the latest change in the NFL’s kicking game.

Last season, PATs were pushed back from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line. This caused a drop in the accuracy rate from 99.4 percent in 2014 to 94.2 percent.

But field goals are a different beast. Unlike PATs, a field goal can be kicked from anywhere on the field — though it’s rare to see a team attempt one from over 50 yards away.

Kickers successfully made 84.5 percent of field goal attempts in 2015 — the second-highest rate in the league’s history. Narrowing the goal posts would make it more difficult for kickers and that 84.5 percent could drop.

The high accuracy of kickers can’t be contributed to just the width of the field goal posts. Many players are specializing in kicking at a younger age and rarely play other positions. Kickers today are more athletic than their predecessors. Improved field conditions, as well as snappers and holders receiving specialized training are factors in improved kicking accuracy.

I’ll be honest, watching a kicker attempt a field goal or a PAT isn’t as exciting as watching a running back plow through a group of defenders on his way to the end zone, or a quarterback throwing a Hail Mary pass to a receiver.

Fans have already seen more two-point conversion attempts in the last year.

In 2015, teams collectively completed 45 out of 121 two-point conversion attempts (37.2 percent) compared to 28 out of 59 two-point conversion attempts (47.5 percent) in 2014.

In the case of fourth down, fans would probably see more teams punting or try for a first-down instead of a field goal.

But what about the kickers? How do they feel about having less of a gap to kick through?

Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri was outspoken about the narrower goal posts during the 2015 Pro Bowl, saying,” I understand the wheels of change are in motion and people want to change stuff, but I feel bad for the young bucks that will have to deal with it their whole career.” I’m not surprised Vinatieri would say that as he missed a pair of extra points and a 38-yard field goal. If he had made those, would he have said the same thing?

Changing the width of the goal posts would force special teams to practice differently and possibly adopt new plays in the playbook.

Kickers who advanced from high school to college football had to adjust from kicking from the 23-foot-4-inch width of a high school goal post to the 18-and-a-half foot width.

A kicker who is truly good at his craft should be able to adjust to different scenarios on the field, including a shortened distance between the goal posts.

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