Eliminating the Kickoff: A Slippery Slope

April 27, 2012

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.


The Most Annoying Traits of Football Fans

April 23, 2012

We all love football, right?  At least you do if you’re reading this blog.  That’s why we spend so much time and energy discussing it, theorizing about it, watching it, listening to other people discussing it, and spending work hours on which running back we (although not me, I don’t play fantasy football) should play this week.

But that’s where our similarities as fans end.

Let’s face it, we all have that one particular team (or two, or twelve) whose fans we can’t stand.  Most of these feelings are based along rivalry lines (Giants/Eagles, Redskins/Cowboys, Chiefs/Raiders, Jets/Dolphins, Steelers/Browns/Ravens, Saints/Falcons, etc.).  We lump them into groups, hate them because we think they are arrogant, cocky, ignorant, self-hating, or self-serving.  We all do tend to think that our cause is the most righteous.  There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s part of fandom.  What I’m talking about here are the annoying behaviors that make football fans look like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel.  These are behaviors that have to go.

“Nobody gave us a chance”

The Monday prior to Super Bowl XLVI, both New York and Boston area radio stations were playing the “nobody is giving us a chance to win this game” card.  Notice that I say “radio stations”, not teams, players, coaches, management, or ownership.  This was a creation of the fans.  Coaches have used this line for motivation since football has been around, and then too, it is way overused.

The Vegas line on the game was Patriots (-2.5).  Being favored by less than a field goal is not being favored.  Either one of these teams winning the Super Bowl was basically a 50/50 proposition.  I’m not ragging on either side with this one, both fan bases were equally as obnoxious.  There is no possible way that after this game, anyone could say with a straight face, “nobody gave us a chance”.  We all like to think we are the underdog at all times because that makes the win all the more sweeter, but not every game is taken straight from the script for Rocky.  The underdog and unappreciated card should be saved for situations like when Appalachian State beats the #2 team in the country in their stadium, not when you’ve been declared less than a field-goal dog in the point spread.

Using events that happened before you were born as sources of bragging rights or disappointment

I had a sixteen-year-old student that was a die-hard Steelers fan.  He used to ever-so-proudly wear a t-shirt that had a Steeler logo on the front and the phrase “Got Six?” (meaning Super Bowl rings) on the back.  Now, I have no problem with the Steelers whatsoever (they don’t even make my top ten in most hated teams in the NFL), but I have a real problem when someone brags on things that happened fifteen years before the aforementioned person was even out of Pampers.  I get the same feeling when a good ole’ boy talks about the Confederacy in the first person.

The same theory applies to disappointments.  Say you’re a Browns fan.  The Browns had multiple gut-wrenching playoff losses throughout the eighties.  The Mistake by the Lake, The Drive, The Fumble, any one of them could cause someone to lose their mind and their faith in their team.  Can a twenty-one year-old fan feel a real sense of disappointment, loss, or angst as a result of any of these games?  I really don’t think that fictional fan could because all of those games would have been learned about over a decade after the fact.  To me, that’s like sending flowers after hearing about the sinking of the Titanic in 1997 after the movie came out.

Not convinced?  Here’s another example:  My beloved Buffalo Bills beat the New England Patriots in week 3 of this past season.  That win snapped a fifteen-game losing streak to the Patriots that goes back to the opening week of the 2003 season.  I remember thinking after the game was won, “This must be what it felt like in 1980”.  What I mean is, Buffalo broke a similar streak (twenty games, 0-for-the seventies) against the Dolphins in week one of the 1980 season.  The fans in attendance at the game stormed the field, ripped down the goalposts, and passed them up to owner Ralph Wilson’s box.  I wasn’t around in 1980 to have seen it first-hand.  I remember reading about it as a kid, but I didn’t feel the angst of that streak (the 0-for-the seventies) or the joy of breaking it, but I felt all of the emotions possible in breaking the Patriot streak because I lived it as a fan.

I am a historian by trade.  I believe that people need to look at the past in order to understand the present, but I just don’t think it’s possible to get emotionally involved in a sporting event that was not seen live (or at the least, very soon after the fact), or on an NFL Films Greatest Games episode.

We (or they) would have won if… / (Insert opponent) only won because we (or they) let them win

I hate rationalizations.  Rationalizing is just a mechanism to make us all feel better about the stupid decisions we (or in this case, our favorite teams) make.  It’s always much easier to rationalize than to admit defeat to a superior opponent, or worse, accept that your team was beaten fair-and-square by an inferior opponent.  Both of the above pretenses are such annoying cop-outs.

There are two reasons why these rationalizations annoy me so much.  One, people always assume the best case scenario if one circumstance goes their way.

My college roommate’s dad once spun a scenario about how the Patriots would have won Super Bowl XX against the Bears if their starting tight end (Lin Dawson, who?) didn’t get hurt on the first play of the game, and if the Patriots converted 3rd and 10 on their first drive.  The Bears won by 36 points.  No tight end on earth is worth 36 points, and one converted third down in the first two minutes of the game is not going to give that kind of a momentum boost.  Is a change in those two plays going to change dropped passes to completions?  Missed blocks to pancakes?  Blown coverages to a blanket?  Alleviate that constant sense of urgency the 46 Defense caused?  No chance in Hell. He was assuming that everything for the next 58 minutes of the game would go the Patriot’s way if those two occurrences went the other way.  Neither of those plays comes close to making up for the fact that no matter what, the Bears defense was going to steamroll the Patriots that day.  Deal with it.

The other reason that rationalizations annoy me is that it takes credit for the victory away from the winning team.  Rationalizing a loss is a nicer way of saying that the winning team didn’t specifically do anything to win.  Last time I checked, winning requires scoring more points than the opponent.  Scoring points is an active process, which means that whoever scores has to perform a task to do so.    “We let them….” attempts to take credit away from the team that scored the points and give the power to the losing team by saying that it was their conscious decision to “allow” the opponent to claim victory.  Fans aren’t the only ones guilty of this.  Listen to player interviews after a particularly disappointing loss.  “We gave it to them” and “We just let it slip away” are common player rationalizations too.

Adding “Nation” to the end of any team’s fan base

I try not to single out particular fan bases, but the Steelers, Patriots, and Raiders are the ones most guilty of this one.  Adding “Nation” to your team does not make you sound more numerous or more fierce.  It makes you sound like the kid in seventh grade that says “I’m gonna round up all my friends and….”.

There’s that quote, “No matter where you are, there are Steelers fans”.  Well, that may be true, but it’s true for most teams.  The NFL is such a national entity now, thanks to the internet (you have to love radio streaming and real-time box scores) and NFL Sunday Ticket, that you can see every team, everywhere.  Kids aren’t growing up with only one or two teams on TV every weekend anymore.  I found a Bills Backers chapter in Charleston, South Carolina.  The Bills haven’t exactly been world-beaters in the past decade, yet I was still able to find fellow fans and a bar eight hundred miles away from Buffalo.  You can basically find fans of every team everywhere, so please stop making your team sound like a national brand that everybody rallies behind (including you, Cowboy fan).

Acting as your team’s apologist

It’s OK to disagree with the actions of your favorite team, even if even if they are being run by a great GM, coach, or has a star quarterback.  Nobody likes the guy that says every move is “just part of their plan”, or “was their decision”.  Holding management accountable may actually produce a better product on the field.  But on that note,

The “everybody else’s team sucks” guy

Embrace reality when talking about the game.  It’s obvious that a Bears fan and a Packers fan are going to have their differences, but if the Packers are 11-0, chances are, they don’t suck.  I hate it when people confuse “don’t like” with “suck”.  I may hate the Patriots (OK, I really hate the Patriots), but they definitely don’t suck.  I hate them because they are so successful, especially against my team.

“Call for the coach’s head after the loss” guy 

As far as the “fire the coach after the first loss” guy, everybody loses.  No team is immune from losing.  Every team, no matter how deep the tradition, has had bad streaks and mediocre seasons.  Putting the coach on the hot seat from minute one is not going to make them prepare their team better.  Would you do better at your job if your boss was hanging over you, constantly reminding you that you’re fired if you don’t perform perfectly, 100% of the time?

Deifying or idolizing teams, coaches, players, GM’s, or owners

Nothing good can come from making the people involved with the game bigger than the game itself.  Nobody stays in one place forever, and nothing lasts forever.  People move on, retire, get traded, and nothing makes the job harder for the person following the legend than having to deal with unreasonable and irrational fans expecting constant perfection because of the constant shadow cast by the guy that came before them.

The problem with placing someone on a pedestal is that once they’re gone, no one else can ever measure up.  No Alabama fan ever remembers that Bear Bryant went eight straight bowl games without a victory, but every coach that ever came through Tuscaloosa after him was compared to his image.  Holding someone up to “legendary” status is like buying a classic car.  It looks great, but the real thing never measures up to the memory.

Look at the situation Penn State is in.  The future of Penn State football is going to depend on how fast the fans and the administration get past the Joe Paterno era and moves on.

I just hit on some broad strokes here, but these are my major pet peeves when it comes to talking sports.  If you agree, let me know what you think.  Even better, if you disagree, I want to hear that too.

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