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Monday, November 18, 2013

NFL Kickoffs Are B-O-R-I-N-G, NonPlay Dinosaurs

Viewing a National Football League kickoff has become about as exciting as watching paint dry. Of course, the occasional kickoff runback is one of the most exciting plays in the game, but lately, a kickoff is seldom returned and, instead it is ruled as a touchback. A touchback is a dead ball and is not even considered a play, but a result of events that may occur during a play.

Two things normally cause the result of an NFL kickoff to become a boring touchback: either the returner fields the ball so deep in the end zone that he chooses not to risk a return or he finds himself helplessly watching the ball sail across the end line destined to be placed on the 20 yard line.

I think the kickoff, as it stands, has become obsolete. So often it is just a meaningless play and an excuse for another commercial break. I understand the risk of injury during a return is great, and I applaud the league for taking steps to cut down on return injuries on violent kickoff collisions. Yet, these changes have taken a vital piece of excitement out of the NFL game.

In an effort to reduce the number of injuries on kickoff returns, the league has moved kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35. They also outlawed the three-man plus wedge, leaving it to a tandem of two guys that can only come together on kickoffs. And, of course, the changes increased the number of touchbacks, but it also reduced the number of opportunities for kick returners to make an impact.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 16.4 percent of kickoffs led to touchbacks in 2010; last year it was 43.5 percent. Pardon me for yawning.

( Chris Jones. "NFL Will Consider Ending Kickoffs." news. December 6, 2012)

Commissioner Roger Goodell reported that after the 2011 season, concussions suffered on kickoffs were down 43%. That is good news. The bad news remained -- kickoff returns were becoming less a part of game dependent upon speed and action.

(Mike Florio. "Goodell Floats Novel Idea for Replacing Kickoffs."
 NBC Sports, December 6. 2012)

New Proposal

A proposed NFL rule change by Roger Goodell seeks to eliminate kickoffs. He admitted to Time magazine that the proposal is "an off-the-wall idea." Goodell does not have the power to make rule changes. The proposal would first have to get through the competition committee

Schiano Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano reportedly proposed the rule change to McKay. McKay then discussed it with Roger Goodell. Goodell reportedly liked the idea.
Here is a brief explanation of the rule change:

Instead of kicking off, the scoring team would retain control of the ball, receiving it at their own 30-yard line in a 4th down and 15 yards to go situation. They could then either punt it away or, to replace an onside kick, go for it in an attempt to convert a first down and maintain possession.

Naturally, one problem raises its ugly or beautiful head (depending upon opinion). What happens if the team that scores keeps converting its subsequent fourth-and-15 tries? That could make for some rather "strange" football.

The move would make punters, long snappers, and gunners more important, along with punt returners. In turn, kickoff specialists would become extinct, and return specialists who are much better returning kicks than punts, would be far less valuable to the broader roster.

Phil Dawson believes it's illogical. "(A punt) is the same play," Dawson, the Browns kicker for 14 years, said. "When the ball is 50 yards down the field, guys are running full speed and you get a lot of cross blocks and guys getting knocked out. I still wouldn't say (kickoffs are) any more dangerous than any other play. I watch wide receivers get concussions each and every week in the NFL, yet we're going to pick on kickoffs? That doesn't add up to me."

(Jeff Schudel. "Joshua Cribbs, Phil Dawson Not in Favor of Proposed Rule Change on Kickoffs." The Morning Journal. December 08, 2012)

My Take

The present NFL kickoff return, always dangerous, risky, but exciting, has largely died. As speedy returners have little or no hope of making a successful play on a kickoff, the long kick has become nothing but a prelude to the touchback. Safety concerns of the players aside, fans understand the kickoff from the 35 yard line for what it has become -- a boring formality.

No one wants to see senseless injury. Still, football is a violent contact sport. Kick returners used to be very valuable offensive weapons on an NFL team; however their worth has greatly decreased as kickoffs become less and less returnable. One must ask if the kick from the 35 should be set back five or ten yards. After all, the name of the game is FOOT-ball.

Why does a sport preserve a play that officials have altered into extinction? Something more substantial than a kickoff should replace the dinosaur. Why? Speed, open field agility, and reckless abandon -- all things that make kickoff returns thrilling and an important offensive weapon -- are gone by way of the touchback.
The Schiano idea may be an answer to killing the kickoff. It is, indeed, off-the-wall but interesting.

I wonder if all kickoffs, even those landing in the end zone should face mandatory return? How would that help participation on the non-returnable end line kicks? It wouldn't.

Here is an idea from my imagination:

Keep the onside kick. This play is a fan favorite. It is relatively safe as far as injuries go. And, the onside kick presents countless options for successful employment. I see no reason to tie rigidly the onside kick to the rule of a kickoff in general. If a team chooses to kick onside after a score, let it be.

All kickoffs other than the onside would be eliminated. The offensive team would take possession of the ball on the goal line, or say, the five yard line (Let the rules committee determine the starting point.) The defense, on this extra play from scrimmage (which I call the Drive Opener), would be required to line up and set formations ten yards distance from the offensive line. The offense would then run one play -- any play of its choice -- giving the team a chance to score a long touchdown or take possession first and ten at the point of completion of the Drive Opener play. Speedy, open field athletes would get plenty of opportunities to display their skill with a Drive Opener.  Plus fumbles and interceptions would still lurk "large" in the open spaces.

Readers, come on and join the fan zone. How would you change the NFL kickoff and return? We can all generate some ideas to match the Schiano scheme. Reply in comments to submit your kickoff dream. Save the brains but increase the thrilling play.

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