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In Pro Bowl 'petri dish,' NFL conducts kicking experiments

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- **Most rules tweaks for the Pro Bowl have no consequences beyond the game: the NFL isn't going to mandate at least one tight end on every snap or ban blitzes and pre-snap motion, among other alterations.

But the NFL will experiment with some tweaks -- and they affect the kicking game most of all. Uprights will be moved in 2.3 feet on each side, the line of scrimmage on extra points will be moved back to the 15-yard-line, kickoffs will be eliminated.

"There are a few kicks here and there that I would have made but didn't make," Eagles kicker Cody Parkey said of the narrowed width. "It makes a huge difference."

The league will also give teams two timeouts each quarter -- with the ability to carry one unused timeout from the first and third quarters to the second and fourth, respectively. It will add two-minute warnings in each quarter, changes of possession at the end of each quarter -- with the other team gaining possession at its 25-yard-line, the same spot at which it would take over after touchdowns and field goals and at the start of each half. And the Pro Bowl will also see the clock stop in the last two minutes of each quarter when a run play does not gain at least one yard, eliminating the kneeldown.

"The Pro Bowl seems to be the petri dish of everything rule-change related," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

The timing rules are fascinating, particularly the one regarding gaining a yard on a run play, which mimics an Arena Football League rule. But it's the kicking tweaks that bear monitoring, because placekickers have never been more accurate than in recent years, despite rules changes like the elimination of the "K" ball designed to make their job more difficult.

"For one reason or another, they (the league) doesn't want to see almost 100 percent extra-point success, and I don't know if they're liking the mid-80-percent field-goal percentage," said Indianapolis' Adam Vinatieri, who will kick for Team Irvin in Sunday night's Pro Bowl.

"Obviously, it's more challenging," added Parkey, who kicks for Team Carter this week. "I don't see why we're doing it, but at the end of the day, whatever they put out there, I'm going to do my best to do what I'm capable of doing."

The shifting of the extra-point spot, which turns a 20-yard attempt into a 33-yarder, saw a two-week experiment in the 2014 preseason. During those games, kickers hit 94.3 percent of the extra points they attempted -- 5.3 percent lower than the success rate of the previous regular season.

"Maybe they should get rid of gloves for the receivers because they're too dang good at catching the ball. Maybe they should make the quarterbacks throw left-handed because the righties are too dang good," Vinatieri said with a smile.

"I'm being facetious, obviously, but I'm kind of a traditionalist. The game has never been more popular. There's never been more fan support with fantasy football and everything else. I'm kind of a believer that if it's not broke, why are we messing around with it?"

But Vinatieri was quick to note that he supported changes made in the name of player safety.

"Those are all awesome rules. We really need to try to make this game as safe as possible," Vinatieri said.

The Broncos' eight Pro Bowlers practiced in Scottsdale, Ariz. on Jan. 24 in advance of the 2015 Pro Bowl.

But that leads to the conundrum of kickoffs. Removing them from the equation would rid the sport of one of its most dangerous plays, but it would also provide a fundamental change to the game's structure.

"There's never been more touchbacks than there has been the last couple of years, so there's not been as many returns," Vinatieri said. "But on the other side, guys are trying to catch it nine and a half yards back of the [goal line] and going with it, because that's the only opportunity you get (to return)."

"I hate to see football change too much, because I love the sport the way it is. I love the fact that special teams [create] some of the most dynamic, exciting plays in football."

For one specific non-kicker, the changes might make a difference in whether he attempts a drop-kick. Brees tried to drop-kick an extra point during the 2012 Pro Bowl in honor of Doug Flutie, his former Chargers teammate who taught him how to drop kick a decade earlier.

With the narrowed distance between the uprights, Brees figures his all-star game kicking career is over.

"Unless they say if you drop-kick it, you get two points. That might make it interesting," Brees said.


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Check out photos of the Broncos at Pro Bowl practice in Arizona. All photos by Andrew Mason.

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