Believe it or not, the National Football League is looking into the possibilities of a major change to a key component of the game, a component that has been around since the start of organized football: the kickoff.
The major change? Doing away with it all together.
What Does This Mean?
This is like the PGA contemplating Mulligans, or NASCAR considering freeway speeds and passing lanes. The ruse, of course, is player safety. Not suggesting player safety isn’t important, but let’s be certain we all understand that the NFL is an all-volunteer army, and assume players are fully briefed on the very real possibilities of being injured, even to the extent of ending ones career. It’s part of the tradeoff for fame and fortune.
But eliminating kickoffs isn’t the answer. As evidenced by the results of moving kickoffs to the 35 yard line in the 2011 season, kickoff returns were under 54 percent, an all-time low, and player concussions were reduced by 40 percent from just the previous season.
Additionally, of the 46 percent of kickoffs that were returned, many of the deep in the end zone, nearly 44 percent fell short of the 20 yard line, where the ball would be placed if Johnny Bravely had just taken a knee. Considering the importance of field position, for my money it’s a no brainer what players should be doing on kickoffs.
The real tragedy of doing away with kickoffs, however, is the removal of a key piece of coaching strategy: the onside kick. The play is almost a given, late in the game with a team trailing by a manageable number of points, but it’s a play that coaches can roll out at any point in the game. Most recently, the Rams and the Chiefs both opened games with an onside kick, and the Saints did it to open the second half of Super Bowl XLV.
Will coaches simply toss a flag onto the field, similar to the red flag they chuck to review a play, signifying that the next play is an onside kick, and then just take possession of the ball on their own 45 yard line? We can easily see the folly in something this absurd, but it does raise the legitimate question of why the NFL would even be considering such a preposterous change to the game.
If they want to essentially eliminate all kickoff returns, they could easily enough just move kickoffs to the 40 yard line. Or they could fill special kickoff-only balls with helium. Or make special-teams players wear those gigantic sumo suits on every kickoff.
Injuries Are Part of the Game
What’s really a shame here, however, is the League’s “nanny state” mindset. Today’s NFL players are in the best physical condition in the history of the game; they take care of their bodies at unprecedented levels, and enjoy protecting themselves with the best safety equipment ever developed. True, we don’t want to see injuries due to negligent rules, but the simple fact of football is that injuries happen, and even if players are equipped with airbags from Detroit, injuries will still happen.
There’s probably no real chance a rule like this will ever see the light of day, but it is suggestive of where the heads are of some NFL executives, and most certainly some NFL owners. Perhaps if owners stopped paying rookie talent obscene amounts of money (Ryan Leaf, anyone?), they’d stop worrying so much about protecting their investments through such overreaching rules, and if we’re being totally honest with ourselves then we all know this is at the root of such contemplated changes.