The issue of concussions has become a vexing one for the NFL, which has begun introducing measures aimed at reducing brain injuries. One idea that’s been discussed in recent years has gained renewed momentum, and if implemented, would have a major impact on how the league’s games are played.
Kickoffs could become a thing of the past, if the NFL’s competition committee has its way. League officials involved have determined that, although kickoff rules have been changed to make them safer, their high-speed collisions still result in too many concussions.
As reported Wednesday by ESPN, Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy, a member of the competition committee, said that statistics compiled by the league showed that kickoffs were five times more likely than other plays to produce concussions.
That has remained the case, Murphy said, even after the NFL began placing the ball at the 25-yard line after touchbacks, rather than the 20, a measure meant to encourage teams to not bring kickoffs out of the end zone. Over the past decade, the NFL has also moved the spot of kickoffs up five yards and reduced the distance behind the line of scrimmage from which kicking team members can get a running start, changes designed to both reduce returns and lower the speed of collisions.
However, Murphy said that part of the problem is that by the time would-be returners catch the ball in the end zone, many of the concussions have already occurred. In fact, an increase in touchbacks may have led to unanticipated dangers.
“One player lets up, the player covering lets up, and one of the blockers comes over and, you know,” the Green Bay executive told reporters, per ESPN. “That creates problems when you’ve got one player going half-speed and the other one full speed.”
Murphy asserted that while the NFL has “reduced the number of returns,” it has not “really done anything to make the play safer.” He added that the league would soon convene a group of head coaches and special teams coaches, with a mandate to “make changes” to create a safer kickoff play, or the league was “going to do away with it.”
“It’s that serious,” Murphy said. “It’s by far the most dangerous play in the game.”
It’s very unlikely that, if the NFL eventually decides to eliminate kickoffs, it would do so this season. The league did approve a number of rules changes, effective immediately, at its recent meetings, one of which is meant to reduce brain injuries and other potential damage.
On Tuesday, the NFL announced that it would give players 15-yard penalties, and possibly ejections, for lowering their heads while initiating contact with other players. The application of that new rule is likely to cause some fans confusion and anger this season — for example, will it be called on Tom Brady when he lowers his head and bulls his way in for a goal-line quarterback sneak? — but getting rid of kickoffs would be certain to prompt a major outcry.
It’s a play deeply tied to the history of the game, and it can produce some of the most compelling, momentum-altering moments. As a Bears blogger tweeted Wednesday, “So they’re getting rid of the play that gave us Devin Hester — the most exciting Bears player of my lifetime. Can’t see how this is a good thing.”
Hester, who many believe belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is an example of a problem that’s been cited about the possible elimination of kickoffs. Those plays provide jobs in the NFL for specialists, in addition to young players hoping to find a way to latch on with teams before fully developing their skills at their respective positions.
One counter to those objections is that NFL games would still have punts and place kicks, providing incentives to keep players with special-teams prowess. In addition, as long as the league maintains its roster size at 53 players, losing a few spots currently allocated to kick-return units could free up room for veterans who don’t play on special teams, keeping familiar names to fans around longer.
Another potential issue is this: If there are no kickoffs, then there are no onside kicks, seemingly robbing teams of the ability to stage dramatic, late-game comeback attempts. One possible solution was suggested several years ago by then-Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, now the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, in which a team that scored would then be given the ball back right away, but at its 30-yard line and with a fourth-and-15 situation. The team would thus have a choice of punting the ball away, mimicking the effect of a kickoff but under safer circumstances, or going for it.
Schiano said at the time that he began reconsidering kickoffs in 2010, when he was head coach at Rutgers and one of his players, Eric LeGrand, suffered a major spinal injury on such a play. “One of the things that when I was researching, I think it was like, in the old kickoff rules, 17 percent of the catastrophic injuries happened on kickoffs, yet it’s only about 6 percent of the plays in the game,” Schiano said. “Well, that is disproportionate.”
As it stands now, more than a few fans already think that some of the NFL’s rule changes, such as penalties for targeting defenseless receivers, have resulted in a disappointingly watered-down product. Traditionalists would howl at the elimination of kickoffs, but that radical change appears closer than ever to becoming a reality.
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