The NFL has enacted rule changes to try to make the kickoff safer for players. That effort will continue with further safety-related tinkering with the play, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
But if such maneuvers fail, the elimination of the kickoff from the sport remains a future consideration, Goodell said.
“We’ve made some very effective changes on the kickoff that have had a very significant impact reducing injuries,” Goodell said in an interview. “It is still a play where we see a higher propensity for head injury. So we want to try to address that. We think there’s still further changes that we can make. We won’t take anything off the table, including the elimination. But we still think there are some changes that we can make that we’ll continue to see progress in that area.”
The sport’s leaders have regarded the kickoff as an unusually hazardous play because would-be tacklers get a running start to race down the field toward potentially violent collisions with blockers and the returner. The Buffalo Bills’ Kevin Everett suffered what doctors called a life-threatening spinal cord injury during the opening game of the 2007 season. Everett survived the injury and later regained the ability to walk.
The most recent rule changes have been aimed at simply reducing the portion of kickoffs that are actually returned by increasing touchbacks. Owners of the 32 NFL teams last offseason ratified a proposal by the rule-making competition committee to place the football at the 25-yard line, rather than at the 20, for touchbacks on kickoffs.
The new rule is designed to encourage returners to remain in the end zone and settle for a touchback on kickoffs that land there. Previously, the NFL moved the spot of the kickoff five yards closer to the opposite end zone to help kickers reach the end zone.
It appears possible that the latest rule change might backfire, however. Some coaches said during the offseason, training camp and the preseason that teams might use the strategy of having kickers drop their kickoffs short of the end zone, then try to tackle the returner shy of the 25-yard line for better defensive field position.
Results during the four-game NFL preseason made those concerns appear justified. According to the league’s data, 42.2 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks during this year’s preseason. That was down from 43.4 percent during the 2015 preseason before the new rule went into effect. The figure was 37.5 percent in 2014 and 45 percent in 2013. Fewer touchbacks mean more returns, exactly the opposite of what the league intended.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, said near the end of the preseason the league’s leaders would not begin to evaluate the new rule until four weeks into the regular season.
Owners approved the touchback modification on only a one-year trial basis, so the competition committee and the owners will reevaluate the issue following this season.
The NFL also made other previous changes on kickoffs, including a rule to restrict “wedge” blocking by multiple members of the return team.
That has been part of a series of safety-related rule changes enacted by the league this decade for all plays, not only kickoffs.
“We’ve had 42 safety-related rule changes since 2002,” Goodell said. “A lot of people questioned — our critics questioned — whether we could make the game safer and better at the same time. I think we’ve proven that we can, and that making the game safer can and usually does lead to making the game better. … There are other areas that we still think we can make changes on, and the committee has been considering that over the last several years and will continue to do that.”
In 2012, Time reported that Goodell had discussed a proposal to eliminate the kickoff with Greg Schiano, then the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. One of Schiano’s former players at Rutgers, Eric LeGrand, suffered a severe spinal injury on a kickoff.
Under Schiano’s proposal, the team that scores a touchdown would retain possession of the football for a fourth-and-15 play at its 30-yard line. The team could opt to punt the ball to its opponent, or try for a first down in a bid to retain possession.
That would address what others within the sport have called one of the main obstacles to eliminating the kickoff. Any such rule change, they have said, might have to contain a mechanism allowing for the slim-chance possibility that a team trailing late in a game could get back possession of the football, as is now the case with the onside kick.