When in doubt, punt

Upsurge in injuries could give kickoffs the boot

With only tonight’s games left in the drawn-out dress rehearsal known as the NFL preseason, the countdown to kickoff of the real season begins.

Meanwhile, the countdown on the kickoff itself has already begun.

Of all the safety-minded rules changes that the NFL has entertained in the recent past, one of the most drastic involves the game’s starting point.

The kickoff, the most dangerous play in football, will go the way of the four-point touchdown if injuries continue at their present rate.

At last March’s owners meeting, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy – a member of the league’s competition committee – was unequivocal about the future of the kickoff: Make it safer, or else it’s going away.

There were 281 concussions reported in the NFL last year – an all-time high and a 15 percent bump up from the 2016 total.

The league has already made rules changes to discourage runbacks, like moving the kickoff up from the 30-yard line to the 35, and the starting line of scrimmage from the 20 to the 25 on a touchback. The rule against leading with the helmet by a defender or ball carrier is the latest iteration of well-intentioned player safeguards.

Despite the changes, concussions keep happening, especially on kickoffs, where they are five times more likely to occur than on any other play. Over the past three seasons, there were 71 concussions suffered on kickoffs.

Among the new rule tweaks is one requiring the kicking team to start from the 35-yard line instead of the 30 – meaning they will have only a 60-yard head of steam this season instead of 65, before smashing into someone.

Replacing such a fundamental part of the game like the kickoff isn’t that tricky. A workable version of a new procedure has been proposed by Greg Schiano, the Rutgers University coach who saw one of his players become paralyzed from an injury suffered on a kickoff, and since has advocated for the elimination of the play.

His idea goes like this: The team that scores a touchdown or field goal gets possession of the ball again, on its own 30-yard line – but instead of first-and-10, it is facing a fourth-and-15. The vast majority of the time, teams will do what they usually do on fourth-and-15 from their own 30, which is punt. The fake punt, or just going for it on fourth-and-15, would replace the onside kick as a means for retaining possession.

Injury-wise, the punt is a safer play than the kickoff it would be replacing. It’s hard to imagine the NFL even considering keeping the kickoff in 2019 if injuries aren’t significantly reduced this season – a provision that unfortunately is also hard to imagine.

For the Packers, the end of the kickoff era would mean that Randall Cobb’s team-record 108-yard TD return forever stands unbroken. Ditto Travis Williams’ NFL season-record four TD runbacks of kickoffs.

The biggest runback in team history will always be Desmond Howard’s 99-yard touchdown scamper that sealed the win in Super Bowl XXXI, while any of the team’s recent brushes with the onside kick will continue to go unmentioned in polite company.

All told, getting rid of the kickoff would be a major change, but the league has seen some comparably big revisions over the years, beginning with the legalization of the forward pass. Goal posts have been moved to the back of the end zone, defenders forbidden to horse collar a runner and teams allowed to try for a one- or two-point conversion after a touchdown, to name a few others.

The game changes with the world around it, and things once thought normal get outdated. The two-way player became obsolete by the early 1960s – not by formal decree, but because the game had evolved to where separate platoons for offense and defense made more sense.

Similarly, in a testament to the precious human brain and the perils of high-speed collisions, the kickoff overhaul may come to be seen as logical as a facemask on a helmet.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@newmedia-wi.com.