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NFL kickoffs aren’t dead yet, but they will be

The NFL is slow-walking its way toward inevitability.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There are doings afoot in New York City. The NFL is convening a gathering of coaches, players, owners, retired players, and league executives to talk about some big changes to the game, like pushing the kickoff to its eventual extinction.

Troy Vincent, the league’s executive VP of football operations, said Tuesday morning that the group wants to present changes to the kickoff rule that could go into effect as soon as this season, according to Judy Battista of the NFL Network.

Vincent added that they are NOT going to eliminate kickoffs. But they do want to make the play safer.

They’ll have some kind of rule change proposal to present to owners for a vote at their May meeting.

How is the NFL going to changes kickoffs this time?

Vincent was not specific about that. The only tidbit of information he gave was they were going to come up with some measure aimed at making kickoffs safer.

One potential change is adopting another rule from college football. Earlier this year, the NCAA changed its rules to allow teams to fair catch a kickoff inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback.

That wouldn’t completely eliminate kick returns. However, it takes away even more of the incentive to attempt to run the ball by giving the receiving team the option of starting at the 25-yard line with a fair catch.

That’s just one option. And there would still probably be teams that would try to the return over the fair catch anyway, depending on the situation and how confident a coach is in his kick returner.

Nevertheless, it’s a rule that would go along way toward cutting down the number of kicks without taking away the play completely, i.e. so teams trailing by one possession late in the game would still have the option of an onside kick attempt.

We still don’t know what rule changes to the kickoff that the NFL will be discussing this week. That’s just one option, and it could meet with plenty of resistance from a league that’s traditionally been reticent to change.

This won’t be the NFL’s first attempt at changing kickoffs either.

In 2011, the league voted to move kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35. The idea behind that move to reduce the number of kicks that got returned in favor of more touchbacks. That rule change also cut down the running start that players on the coverage team could take to five yards.

In 2016, the NFL moved touchbacks up five yards, from the 20 to the 25-yard line. The idea behind that move was, similar to the change the NCAA just made, to take away a team’s incentive for returning the ball. They made that rule change permanent in 2017.

There have been fewer returns since changing the touchback to the 25, a total of 1,081 during the regular season in 2015 compared to 1,036 last season, 33.8 per team in 2015 vs. 32.4 per team last season.

So why not just eliminate the kickoffs instead of chipping around the edges?

Good question! The NFL is right that kickoffs are dangerous, more than other plays. And there’s ample research that says they’re not all that effective anyway.

Out of the 1,036 kicks returned last season, there were just seven touchdowns, so 0.6 percent of plays. Games last season only averaged two kickoff returns.

The best reason for not eliminating kickoffs is the onside kick attempts for teams trailing to get the ball back and try to score again. But there are ways around that too!

We’ve had this discussion before, right here on this very website! Rodger Sherman covered it in 2016. In short, he put forth three ideas for this very scenario.

1. After every touchdown, the scoring team has the opportunity to go for it from 20 yards for the chance to retain possession.

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.

3. Teams have the option to attempt onside kicks if they want to.

He went into more detail about each idea here, so you should definitely read that.

In March, the NFL competition committee was talking openly about eliminating the kickoff. Packers president Mark Murphy, a member of the committee, laid it out in pretty stark terms.

“If you don’t make changes to make it safer, we’re going to do away with it,” he said. “It’s that serious. It’s by far the most dangerous play in the game.”

Change comes slowly in the NFL. So for now, we can expect another modification to the kickoff. The NCAA took a big step with its latest rule change helping to suffocate it.

Who knows if the NFL will embrace a similar rule change. Either way, they’re still content to nibble at the edges instead of making a wholesale overhaul. That’s dumb. It’s pretty clear the NFL knows what it needs to do here, so stop farting around and do it.