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The NFL's new ban on leaping kick blocks is sad but smart

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These plays are awesome, but ending them makes sense.

The leaping kick block is one of football’s most exciting plays. For a defender to hurdle a line of blockers and reject a field goal or extra point, he needs impeccable timing and top-notch athleticism. If he does it right, he’ll launch into an explosive jump and cross the neutral zone less than a split-second before the long snapper releases the ball to the holder. It can look downright beautiful.

Kam Chancellor did it against the Panthers in the playoffs a few years ago. His block didn’t count because he ran into the kicker afterward, but I don’t mind pretending it counted. Chancellor read Carolina’s snap count and did something superhuman. It was gorgeous sports.

It’s going to be illegal going forward. A week after the NFLPA signaled interest in banning players from leaping over the line of scrimmage to block a field goal, a rule change banning leap blocks passed the NFL’s competition committee on Tuesday. Major college football is likely taking a similar step soon.

Both the NFL and NCAA have previously outlawed leaps in which a leaper who didn’t line up on the line of scrimmage jumps and lands on another player. An NCAA committee has proposed expanding the college rule to ban leaping whether the leaper lands on someone else or not.

There are some loopholes in the current college rule, and it’s not clear if those would survive. The biggest is that a player can’t be penalized if he leaps from the neutral zone or the other team’s side of it. That provision is what most clearly allowed Penn State’s Marcus Allen to leap and block a kick against Ohio State last year, leading to a touchdown runback that turned the Big Ten race on its head.

Sometimes, leaping attempts don’t work, and that can be even better. One of my favorite moments of the last NFL season was when the DolphinsTony Lippett tried to pull a Chancellor against the Steelers. Nobody on the blocking unit batted an eye, and Lippett leapt clear over all of them while the Steelers were still in their cadence. He was in no man’s land. The Steelers got five yards and a hilarious first down. I sat in the stands and laughed with my dad.

At their best, sports treat us to stunning displays of ability and moments that give us a chance to laugh. Sports are entertainment, and attempts at the leaping kick block have a high chance to be entertaining, whether for the reason the defense intends or something else.

I’ll miss leaping when it’s gone, but it’s probably time.

“The jump-over rule on the field goal concerns me,” NFLPA president Eric Winston recently told Pro Football Talk. “I would say that there’s a chance for a big injury on that play. Just for the jumper getting his legs caught up and landing on his head and for the offensive linemen in between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ gaps.

“If that guy gets his legs hit and falls on someone’s leg, those are big injuries. Those aren’t sprained-ankle sort of injuries.”

Winston has presumably studied the issue. He leads an organization that’s charged with watching out for player welfare. His argument makes sense. What goes up must come down. If a player’s legs get caught while he’s leaping forward, his head’s going to the ground and the rest of his body’s following.

The leaping block is a little bit like the kickoff return. Kickoffs are almost never exciting, and they add injury risk to the game. The occasional TD return is awing, just like the occasional leap block. (And leap blocks can be fun even when they don’t work.)

But life’s about pros and cons, and that the NFL and college football are weighing them is good. It’s head-scratching that they haven’t come around to the same rationale on kickoffs, but progress is progress.

Leaping is a joy. The sport will miss it, but it won’t miss what might’ve come with it.