The ongoing crusade to improve player safety in the NFL could soon lead to a radical change in NFL rules: the elimination of the kickoff.
According to Giants owner (and NFL Competition Committee member) John Mara, there has been a lot of talk within high-level NFL circles about eliminating the kickoff. “We had a lot of discussions about whether we should eliminate it and if we did what we could do in its place,” Mara told Giants.com. “There’s no consensus on it right now, but I could see the day in the future where that play could be taken out of the game. You see it evolving toward that.”
The league drastically reduced the importance of kickoffs last season by moving them up from the 30-yard-line to the 35. This led to a ton of touchbacks and a record-low 53.1% of kickoffs being returned. (Frankly, I’m surprised that figure was that high. It seemed like every kick was a touchback last year.)
The idea behind reducing the number of returns was to reduce the number of player injuries, especially concussions. There isn’t a more dangerous play in football than the kickoff, so logic dictates that this rule should have reduced injuries. And it totally worked: there was a whopping 40% reduction in concussions in the NFL in 2011.
The owners, absolutely desperate to get out ahead of the sea of concussion lawsuits they are going to be hit with, have to be pretty excited about that. Anything and everything they can do to avoid concussions is going to happen.
And that’s why the elimination of kickoffs is a very real possibility. The NFL doesn’t need some lawyer showing how dangerous kickoffs during a billion-dollar class action lawsuit someday, claiming the NFL was negligent toward player safety by keeping the kickoff in the game.
But how would the league replace kickoffs? There’s really not a terribly good option I’ve seen.
You could just put the ball on the 20-yard-line following scores, but that’s 1) boring and 2) takes the onside kick out of the game. I suppose you could give teams the option of onside kicking instead of giving the other team the ball at the 20, but opens up a whole other can of worms. What’s to say you couldn’t line up for an “onside” kick and then blast it deep anyway?
This article outlines some interesting ideas, such as allowing teams to forego extra points to place the ball further back on the opposing team’s next possession. Another one that could be sort of fun is having kickers still kick after scores, but aim for targets instead an actual kick. (“Hit the bulls-eye and the other team starts on their own 5-yard-line!”)
Another possibility would be to have teams use their punters to “kick off,” sort of like after a safety. The high hang time and shorter distance on punts would lead to a lot of fair catches and shorter returns.
Unfortunately, there’s simply not an option I’ve seen that’s as exciting as kickoffs. But believe me when I say the owners really don’t care.
Enjoy watching kickoffs in 2012: there’s a very real possibility that’s the last time you will see them in NFL football.