clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NFL should stop messing around and just get rid of kickoffs

The NFL keeps tinkering with its kickoff rule to prevent teams from participating in its most dangerous play. Why not just get rid of it?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason, the NFL decided to make a temporary change to the rule about touchbacks. If a kickoff goes for a touchback, the receiving team will get the ball at the 25-yard line rather than the 20. If the NFL doesn't like the way this change affects the game, they can get rid of it after this season.

The reasoning behind the rule change is obvious. Kickoffs are more dangerous than regular plays. since it involves teams sprinting towards each other from opposite directions for 30 or 40 yards, then colliding into each other. The NFL claims to have data saying kickoffs are more dangerous than other plays, and outside sources have also found the injury rate on kickoffs is much higher than the injury rate on any other type of play. There has also been a study that shows an abnormally high proportion of severe injuries to high school football players occur on kickoffs.

Therefore, the league is trying to discourage teams from returning kicks. The idea is that with a touchback bringing the ball 5 yards farther down the field, more return teams will accept the touchback instead of bringing the ball out of the end zone. The hope is that this leads to fewer kickoff returns, and in turn, fewer injuries.

This has worked before. In 2011, the league moved the starting point for the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line and injuries on kickoffs were reduced drastically. However, the reduction in injuries was not due the shorter run-up. A study showed the reduction in injuries seemed to be almost entirely tied to the fact that there were simply fewer returns. The kicker was 5 yards closer to the end zone, so the ball generally went about 5 yards farther than before, and that made kickers much more likely to accept touchbacks.

The new rule will probably cause fewer injuries, but what the NFL is doing is backwards. If the kickoff is so dangerous, why not just get rid of it?

The kickoff is not essential to football. It's a play that's pretty uninteresting the vast majority of the time and also happens to be extremely dangerous. And that's why it should be eliminated.

Tweaking the rule might not always be effective

The rule is intended to produce fewer kick returns, but some special teams experts think the change will have the opposite effect.

ESPN and the Chicago Tribune both talked to multiple coaches who say they expect to see kicking teams try their best to prevent the opposing team from even getting the opportunity to accept a touchback. They predict teams will use "sky" or "mortar" kicks -- high kickoffs with plenty of hangtime intended to land close to the goal line -- giving return men the ball close to the goal line. Former NFL kicker Jay Feely agreed.

It wasn't worth risking a big return to potentially stop opponents at the 18-yard line when a touchback put the ball at the 20. Now a touchback puts the ball at the 25. If NFL teams think they have the chance to occasionally stop players before the 20-yard line on these kicks, they might take it.

You know what has no potential for increasing kickoff returns? Eliminating kickoff returns! The NFL could do that, if they wanted to!

Kickoffs are generally boring

Kickoffs have the potential to be the most exciting play in a football game, if something exciting happens. But something exciting almost never happens. The majority of kickoffs are touchbacks, and the vast majority of kickoffs that are actually returned are routinely covered by the 30-yard line.

In the 2015 NFL season, there were 2,550 kickoffs, and 66 of those were onside kicks, so let's only consider the 2,484 deep kickoffs. Of those, 1,469, or 59.1 percent of these, were touchbacks. That means 60 percent of the time a kickoff happened, it was a non-play. 1,469 times NFL fans watched two teams elaborately set up their kickoff teams, a process which takes a pretty decent amount of time, only for nothing to happen.

Meanwhile, seven were returned for touchdowns. That's .28 percent of all kickoffs. So 99.72 percent of the time, the exciting thing does not happen. Even if we eliminate all the touchbacks, it's still just seven touchdowns against 1,081 returned kicks. That's .64 percent.

The year before, there were six kickoff returns for touchdowns, in 2013, there were seven. If you go to an NFL game, you've got about a 2.7 percent chance of seeing a kickoff returned for a touchdown. By comparison, you've got a 6.3 percent chance of seeing a safety, a play we treat as exceptionally rare.

If the kickoff were routinely exciting, it might be worth saving. But kickoffs are generally boring. We'd save a lot of time by just giving each team the ball on the 25-yard line after an opposing score.

We can come up with alternatives

One reason we don't want to get rid of kickoffs is we need them for comeback victories. If you're trailing by a bunch and score, the kickoff is your opportunity to attempt an onside kick, try to recover it and then score again.

Perhaps the biggest argument against eliminating kickoffs is that it ruins the opportunity for the wild comebacks we love.

Really? You think we can't figure out a workaround to this? Here, here are three:

1. After every touchdown, the scoring team has the opportunity to go for it from 20 yards for the chance to retain possession. This would probably work around as often as onside kicks, and we'd get to see a regular football play decided by each team's offense and defense rather than the whims of a funny-shaped ball. If you miss, the opponent gets the ball from the spot.

2. We're eliminating kickers' jobs a bit here, so let's give them a break. Same idea, but with a 60-yard field goal with the ball spotted at midfield. No defense, just a kicker and a holder. I'm guessing that with kickoffs out of the game, teams will prioritize hyper-accurate kickers over strong-legged kickers, so there will be fewer kickers capable of hitting these. If you hit it, you keep the ball from midfield, if you miss, the opponent gets the ball at midfield. We can tweak it if kickers are making 60-yarders too frequently, but kickers generally don't make 60-yarders frequently.

And last but not least ...

3. Teams have the option to attempt onside kicks if they want to. Onside kicks don't have the same inherent dangers as regular kickoffs, so we could eliminate the dangerous type of kickoffs where teams sprint into each other at full speed while still allowing teams to attempt the play where everybody chases a bouncing ball. There would be a rule in place against kicking it deep, to prevent teams from abusing the rule to manipulate the loophole for field position.

Kickoffs kill children

Football kills a decent amount of high schoolers every year. Sometimes they die from heatstrokes, sometimes they die from pre-existing medical conditions and sometimes they die from brutal on-field injuries.

A disproportionate amount of these deaths come from kickoffs. Last season 11 high school football players died, and seven of those deaths were a direct result of on-field injuries. Three of these seven injuries happened on kickoffs, which do not make up 43 percent of football plays.

Ben Hamm, a high school junior from Bartlesville, Okla., died last September due to an injury covering a kickoff. He scored a touchdown on one play, and suffered a fatal injury on the next.

"It wasn't an unusual hit, wasn't a bigger hit than anything else. In fact, there wasn't much that stood out about it," Clark said.

Cam'ron Matthews, a high school junior from Alto, La., died last October due to an injury suffered covering a kickoff. The official cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the head, but he also suffered a heart attack as his body tried to get more blood to his brain.

The junior speedster went and did his part on the kickoff return as the seconds ticked down to halftime. Returning to the bench Matthews went into a seizure, along the Alto sideline.

Andre Smith, a high school senior from Chicago, died last October due to an injury suffered covering a kickoff. The official cause of death was blunt-force trauma.

"It was a kick return play," Stagg Stadium announcer Jimmy Smith said. "(Smith) was running and a guy blocked him, hit him pretty good and that was it. He went down and he got back up, and walked back to the visitor's side of the field."

High schoolers often don't know proper tackling technique, there's often a big size difference between players, and medical facilities aren't necessarily trained to deal with trauma like NFL medical staffs. When NFL players sprint into each other as fast as they can, it's merely dangerous. When high schoolers do it, it's sometimes deadly.

The NFL obviously doesn't have jurisdiction over high school football. But if the NFL were to eliminate kickoffs, it would legitimize doing so, and pave the way for high school federations to do so, as well.

In the grand scheme of things, I do not care about the competitive aspect of whether kickoffs are a good football play. I do, however, care about the fact that right now, there are several teenagers on this planet who are alive right now, who will die within the year because football includes kickoffs. It happens every year, and it will happen again this fall.

The best reason for preserving kickoffs is kind of a bad one

While NFL competition committee member Mark Murphy, the CEO of the Packers, acknowledged kickoffs are "a very dangerous play," the committee's chair, Falcons president Rich McKay, explained why it was staying on the rulebooks.

"We understand that it's been a historical part of the game," McKay said, "and nobody wants to mess with the history part of the game unless it need be. It's one we continue to look at."

The kickoff is a vestigial element in football. It is there because the rugby games football derived from began with kickoffs. Over the past 150-or-so years, football has evolved into this unique game we love, with a line of scrimmage and forward passes and all sorts of elements the people who invented it never foresaw. And yet we retain kickoffs, a weird rugby play spliced into a distinctly different game.

Keeping the kickoff in football is like bringing a wolf to the dog park. Just because all those playful puppies and that wild wolf share the same ancestor doesn't mean you need to let them hang out with each other.

"We've always done it this way!" is a fine reason for retaining things, until it becomes actively hurtful to do so. And the kickoff is actively hurtful to football. Each year, we get more and more evidence football does horrible things to the bodies and brains of the people who play it, and each year, the voices saying we should stop playing football will get louder and louder. Some call it "the war on football."

I don't think eliminating the kickoff would be part of "the war on football." It is an attempt to preserve the things we actually love about football. This sport is under fire. Why should we hang on to this superfluous play that provides so many of the brutal injuries that provide ammunition to the people trying to eliminate football?

If you want to save all the things we love about football, you should be happy to see the sport rid itself of its most dangerous, least necessary elements. The kickoff is dangerous and unnecessary, and football would be better off without it.

* * *

Hilarious Kickoff Return: The Raiders' last-second attempt to beat the Bears in October

Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more