Eliminating the Kickoff: A Slippery Slope

As a result of the impending class-action lawsuit brought by former players against the NFL, the NFL has explored a baffling course of action: eliminating kickoffs.

The NFL is in cover-their-ass mode since the BountyGate scandal exposed Gregg Williams’ pay-for-injuries program.  It wasn’t a stretch to think that after the scandal was exposed, the lawsuits would soon follow.  The NFL is trying to give the impression that they are continually concerned about player safety so that they look good in court, but eliminating kickoffs is going too far.

There is a personal risk that someone who plays football at any level has to accept.  There is a reason why both the kid and the parents have to sign a waiver before getting a helmet.  Speaking of helmets, doesn’t it go without saying that if you have to wear pads, the sport may possibly be dangerous?  Just as cars have seat belts and airbags to limit the risk involved in driving a car, football has helmets, pads, and the occasional rule change.

The problem here is that you can’t legislate away all risk.  Just as there are always going to be car accidents no matter what is done to cars, there will always be injuries as long as there is football.  We don’t like for injuries to happen, and we don’t root for it to happen, but it is a virtual guarantee that if you play the game for long enough, you are going to get injured.

What I don’t understand about this lawsuit is why the players view the NFL as solely culpable for their post-football health issues.  All of these players have played football prior to playing in the NFL.  Are their symptoms only caused by the hits that they received while playing professionally?  Were the eight to fifteen years of their amateur playing career completely safe, but the NFL completely unsafe?  I find that reasoning very hard to stomach.

If the former players are suing over the standard of (and access to) medical care received during and after their playing careers, then that is understandable.  If they are suing over not being informed of the risk of playing an obviously violent game, then they have entered into “hot McDonald’s coffee between the legs while driving” territory.

Now back to the kickoffs.  Think of what eliminating kickoffs means.  Players like Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs will be neutralized and phased out.  Special teams turn bad teams into viable threats.  They can turn good teams into great teams.  It can also go the other way.  Great teams can be downgraded if their coverage and return units are bad.  Special teams keep teams in games that they might not have been able to win otherwise.

Look at this scenario:  Your team just went up by two points with thirty seconds left.  Which would you rather have, the opponent gets the ball automatically on their own twenty, or you have to kickoff.  You would forego the kickoff every time because defense is a known entity, and kickoffs make us hold our breath.

Kickoffs are a play that are completely routine, and end up with the same outcome 95% of the time: 1st and 10 at around the 25-yard line (or a touchback, which is basically the same thing).  But that remaining 5% are why they matter.

Kickoffs are the most exciting play in football.  It is one of the few plays where the players are entirely spread out all over the field.  The players involved in the kickoff are usually not starting players, and the kickoff (or punt) is probably the only time they will see the field that day.  The result of that is just about everyone on special teams is a specialist.  They go into the game with one job to do, and all of their concentration during the week is on their one job.  Being any kind of a specialist means playing in only specific situations and circumstances.  I have a very hard time believing that eight to ten kickoffs a game involving players that probably aren’t setting foot on the field except for those eight to ten plays are more responsible for retired players’ health issues than regular plays from the line of scrimmage.

Think of it this way: When are you more likely to get into a car accident, when you drive ten miles to work (each way) every single day, or if you take the subway except for about once a month and are forced to take a cab with a driver that has a death wish?  I would bet on the guy who drives every single day.  The meaning of the metaphor is that if they’re looking to decrease injuries, shouldn’t they look at the sixty “regular” plays a game that the long time veterans are playing as opposed to the ten plays a game that the special teams journeyman gets?

Also, if you eliminate kickoffs, then you eliminate onside kicks as a result.  If teams do not have the ability to get the ball back at the end of a game without a defensive series, then that means games can be put away earlier than if an onside kick is an option.   If a team is down by two scores with three minutes left and one or no timeouts remaining, a legitimate chance of a comeback is not within their reach without a serious, self-inflicted screw-up (turnover, blocked punt, incomplete pass) by the opponent.

As far as kickoffs resulting in enough injuries that they could be eliminated, I subscribe to Occam’s Razor.  Which is more likely: the special teams player that plays ten plays a game on the kickoff and punt units for three or four years is going to have a dramatically lowered quality of life after retiring from football, or the ten or twelve year veteran that plays sixty to seventy plays a game is going to be more adversely affected following their playing career?

Eliminating the kickoff sets a dangerous precedent.  There is a big difference between tweaking the language of what is considered pass-interference and completely abolishing a major strategic part of the game.

If the NFL takes away special teams plays, then what’s next? No trap blocking?       Two-hand touch on the quarterback?  No rushing kicks?  No blitzing linebackers?  Zero contact with receivers?  If entire portions of the game are eliminated, then we will be left with a shell of the game that was once great.  The NFL will have gone from America’s favorite spectator sport to a weak 7-on-7 tournament where shorts can be worn.

The rules have already been tweaked on kickoffs, with the wedge being made illegal.  To increase safety further, why not add a couple of roster spots to each team and designate them as “special teams players”?  Allow those players to only be on the field if a kicker or punter is also on the field.  The regular offensive and defensive players would play less special teams, and a couple of the special teams players wouldn’t have to play offense or defense.  Everybody plays a little less, limiting their exposure to the big hits that lead to the predicament they’re in now.

I am not one of these idiot “might as well give them a skirt” fans.  I believe in protecting the players as much as possible.  But I also don’t want to turn on the TV twenty years from now and see a weekend NFL schedule with thirteen games that look like last season’s Pro Bowl.

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2 Responses to Eliminating the Kickoff: A Slippery Slope

  1. This doesn’t have much to do with your post, but while we’re talking about kickoffs… My biggest complaint with the kickoff has nothing to do with the game itself but with TV. The NFL has a ridiculous timeout policy where a team scores, we sit through three minutes of commercials, come back to live action for ONE play (the kickoff), followed by three more minutes of commercials. It’s enfuriating to see exactly one football play in a 7-8 minute span (probably longer when you factor in that all touchdowns are now reviewed).

    I would rather have a minute of commercials after every single change of posession than that ridiculous gap.

    But more to your point, the loss of the onside kick would be devastating to the game. With the 40 second play clock, you could essentially call any game with less than two minutes if a team leads by more than 8 points. Like not playing the bottom inning when a home baseball team has the lead.

    • TaiwanMike says:

      My problem isn’t as much with the actual commercials that interrupt the game because NFL games are now mostly being kept under three hours, but with the “extra” ads that we see constantly. In college bowl games, I hate seeing the eight square-inch “Tostitos” patch on the jerseys during the Fiesta Bowl, or the “Let’s go to the Bud Light Scoreboard brought to you by Bud Light”. At least commercial breaks are up front about it, I just hate the constant commercials that are sneaked in. Even with the break/kickoff/break, the NFL has done a hell of a job keeping the game time down. I used to be frustrated as hell as a kid and a teenager when I would tape the game if I couldn’t see it live, and the tape would run out because the game went for 3:45, or if the Bills were playing the 4:05 game, and the 1:00 game lasted until 4:30. There is no reason why the average regulation-length football game should go over three hours. College football really needs to follow suit, because most of the time these games are running close to four hours.

I do appreciate other viewpoints, so please comment

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