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Why college football’s new kickoff fair catches rule is a good idea

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Kickoff returns will still happen, but they’ll be less frequent. That’s a good thing for a few reasons.

San Jose State v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Throughout the 2018 season and afterward, you’ll see lots of kick returners waving for fair catches. It’s the result of a rule change.

What is college football’s new kickoff fair-catch rule?

The receiving team on a kickoff can call for a fair catch inside its own 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback. If that happens, the offense starts at the 25.

The aim of the rule is to discourage kickoff returns.

OK, but why does the NCAA want fewer kickoffs?

They’re dangerous. From the NCAA’s announcement:

The Football Rules Committee made the proposal to continue efforts to increase the number of touchbacks during kickoffs since fewer injuries occur during kickoffs that result in touchbacks than on kickoffs that are returned. All other aspects of the kickoff play will remain the same.

The new rule is the latest in a series of changes the committee has made in recent years in hopes of making the play safer.

Data varies by team and league, but it makes sense that players get hurt relatively often on kickoff returns. Everyone on the field has time to build up a head of steam before charging toward players doing the same on the other team.

The NCAA has tried to deal with this danger in other ways. The most recent was installing a ban on wedge blocking in 2010, barring players from running shoulder-to-shoulder to form a human wall in front of a returner.

But aren’t kickoffs really fun?

Kickoff returns are also just not that exciting. They sometimes result in splash plays, but they usually just result in someone getting tackled around his own 25 or 30.

In 2017, FBS teams returned 4,748 kickoffs, according to data at cfbstats.com. Of those, 5.3 percent)went for 40-plus yards. Just 2.9 percent went for 50-plus yards, and just 1.2 percent went for touchdowns. Big returns are a blast when they happen, but you could watch a regular season’s worth of games and not see one.

Is one touchdown worth 95 boring plays with high risk of injury?

The video below draws on NFL data but makes a similar point: Kickoffs aren’t usually worth anyone’s time, even before you consider the heightened injury risk they bring:

But there’s nothing preventing a return if a team wants to make one, right?

Right. All this rule does is give the returning team more options.

It leaves coaches and return men a choice to make on kickoffs that come down between the goal line and about the 10-yard line: When’s worth trying to run past the 25, and when’s it smartest to start at the 25 and get on with your day?