There was a lot of buzz over this past weekend about an idea that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell mentioned in the TIME magazine feature on him about potential changes to how the NFL does kickoffs. Driven by the need for increased player safety, the NFL is considering ways to make the kickoffs less injurious to players.
The idea specifically mentioned in the magazine article – credited to Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano – would eliminate kickoffs altogether. Instead, the team that wins the toss at the beginning of the game or that just scored during the game would get possession of the ball at their own 30 yard line with 4th down and 15 yards to go. They would then have the option of punting the ball or trying to pick up the 15 yards for a first down and retain possession. That is a pretty unorthodox approach – and one that could theoretically mean that the other team would never get possession of the ball (if the “kicking team” was successful picking up the first down on 4th and 15 every time, then theoretically the “receiving team” would never get the ball).
Of course, the NCAA already does something similar – at least in overtime games. Each team starts at the opponent’s 25-yard line going in and must score or pick up a first down to continue the possession. There are no kickoffs in overtime and it hasn’t seemed to destroy the game or the competitiveness although the way the NCAA handles overtime has its share of fans and detractors.
While the “Schiano Plan” has little chance of being adopted – it is a bit too radical – the underlying need for some kind of change is valid. The NFL purist hates the idea of course of making any changes to the game that in their opinion has already been watered down so much already. (Anyone else just a little disgusted by the flags thrown on good, hard clean hits on receivers these days? It appears receivers are now almost as untouchable as quarterbacks. How long before we become a two-hand touch league?) The hard facts are however that a higher percentage of injuries do occur on kickoffs (total injuries sustained on a kickoff as a percentage of total kickoff plays).
The NFL today is unbelievably fast and violent. If the average person has never had a chance to watch live game action down on the sideline, the TV screen nor the seat in the stands doesn’t do it complete justice. Athletes have gotten bigger, stronger AND faster all at the same time. The rules of the game just haven’t kept up by and large. Setting players up 30-40 yards apart from one another and telling them to run as hard and as fast as they can into one another seems like a recipe for a lot of carnage. And, that is what it produces unsurprisingly.
At this point, most folks ask why punting the ball – the other way a team relinquishes possession – is safer. The facts are that it is. Most of the contact on a punt (except for the punt returner) is done in close quarters. The gunners do hand-to-hand combat all the way down the field but both kicking and return teams are in close proximity to one another. The players are still running hard and running a long ways but don’t have the separation from one another like they do on a kickoff that allows for incredible momentum. They are not eliminated of course but there are far fewer high speed collisions on a punt.
The biggest loss to the game of course would be the elimination of the electric and exciting kickoff return for a touchdown (ask the Saints how bad the Giants hurt them last Sunday afternoon on that front). That is no doubt a negative. But, it may be a sacrifice that the league will have to make. You would still have the possibility of a punt return for a touchdown so special teams excitement would not be completely eliminated.
Many will disagree and I truly see their point, but I think something will need to be done to replace the kickoff. In our modern world with litigation hanging over their heads concerning concussions and player safety in general, the NFL is going to have to do something. I would be okay personally if they just awarded possession to the team that wins the toss (still having the option of taking the ball or deferring to the second half) and let them start at their own 30 or 20 or whatever yard line was deemed “fair”. Other than the potential for a long return or a touchdown (which happens in a very small percentage of plays overall), it would not alter the game in a meaningful way. The truth is most kickoffs today result in a starting position of about that point anyway. Both the offensive and defensive players would be less winded and ready to play. And, the game would be faster because EVERY SINGLE kickoff seems to generate a flag for blocking in the back or holding. It’s gotten to the point of ridiculous and offenses are backed up inside their own 20 more often than not. That in my opinion has a bigger impact on the outcome of most games than taking away the long kick returns that happen so seldom. I say give them the ball at a given yard line and let’s play football!
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