The kickoff does not have a right to exist. Rules in sports never have rights, they simply indicate wrongs. And right and wrong are governed not by the laws of nature, physics, or the cosmos, but by the capricious nature of the people entrusted as stewards of our games. It is their judgment, derived from witnessing countless catches-turned-incompletions at key moments and taunting penalties that are marched off the same distance as attempted decapitations, that we trust to maintain the fairness, safety, and excitement of the game we love.
Those three terms – fairness, safety, and excitement – form the basis by which any rule is created. Some, such as pass interference, were put in place because it was judged to be unfair that defenders could tackle an opposing player before they had a chance to make a play on a ball in the air. Others, such as the chop block rule, are in the rulebook to ensure generations of offensive lineman can have at least one chance to avoid a catastrophic knee or ankle injury. And some, such as the change in extra point distance starting in the 2016 season, were created because, to be honest, it’s just kind of boring watching someone succeed 99% of the time because kickers are too good now. After all, if victory were a certainty, what is the point of playing the game?
The changes in kickoff rules over the last decade, including the now-complete removal of blocking wedges, reduction in run-up that coverage units may take, and shifting the yard-line at which a team receives the ball after a touchback – these all are unmistakably, and rightly, in the name of player safety. Kickoffs are the most dangerous play on the football field. How many special teams coaches have shown the Battle of Stirling Bridge from Braveheart as an example of what a kickoff should look like? Instead of raising your hands if this is the case, put them in the air if this never happened on a team you were on. I could land a 747 with the open airspace I see on this one. Kickoffs are violent, high-speed collisions after a long period of acceleration during which the receiving team tries to deceive the other team as much as possible and block them from unexpected angles.
What could go wrong?
Well, if the Jets are involved, everything.
But even for non-aviation-named teams, the flight downfield has always been fraught with peril. Blocking and tackling angles are different from typical football plays, speeds are exaggerated, and the whirlwind of action can be visually and spatially disorienting, even to well-seasoned players. While the data on concussions and other injuries on kickoffs varies at different age levels, it is almost universally-agreed that kickoffs have a higher rate of injuries at every level of play from high school through professional leagues. It is far and away the most dangerous play in the game.
The player safety angle is real, and finding ways to reduce injuries on kickoffs has to be a key component of building a safer game for future players.
We are now one step away from regulating the kickoff out of football. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that within five years, we will no longer have kickoffs in football. And from a player safety standpoint, I think that’s the right move. That is not to say that I don’t feel a big chunk of my soul dying as I watch the play go the way of the dodo bird, but rather, changing the game for the better has consequences that may affect some individuals in a negative way. My position is one such group of those individuals. There is another group made up of return specialists. There is another group made up of players who fight and claw for roster spots as rookies or seasoned veterans wanting one more chance at a ring and willing to do anything to help the team. These are all men who may soon no longer have those 10 plays per game to prove they belong on the field.
Football already has a broken developmental system because of the conflicting goals of NCAA and NFL teams and the lack of any consistent minor league. Think of the players that stuck on a team because they were fearless and relentless on kickoffs or kickoff coverage – Tedy Bruschi, Kam Chancellor, Devin Hester – our game is undoubtedly better because of their presence and their ability to prove themselves on those plays. So when we do inevitably get rid of kickoffs, what do we replace them with to allow the next generation of these players to develop?
We need to look beyond incremental change that worsens the quality of play and fan experience and look towards bigger transformations that can create a better game to watch and play. If you can reach back in your memory to the summer of 1906, way back when life was simpler and the milkman still stopped by twice a week and knew your name, you may recall that football created the use of the forward pass as a way to literally stop people from being killed while playing the game. Our sport once again needs to adapt, not to save our boys and men from dying playing a game, but from being unable to live after they play the game.
What if we can create something new?
Maybe we retain kickoffs but make all of the players other than the kicker line up on the receiving goal line to get rid of the speed and awkward blocking angles. Maybe we put in place a rugby-style scrum where both teams can compete after each score to see who gets the ball and where it ends up. Maybe we make it just about the kicker and let him kick from his own goal line and wherever the ball first touches the ground is where the other team starts.
We can do any of these things. We can do none of these things.
But the point is that the way we shape our game is up to us to decide. Our rules do not exist simply because they existed before. They exist for us to create a game that we want to watch, want to play, and want to be proud of. So I choose not to rage into the dying of the kickoff – actually, I do choose to – but I also choose to direct that energy to what comes next. One day we will all be able to tell our grandkids about how we saw the last kickoff. The only question is whether we can craft something that makes fans cheer loudly enough to drown out the echoes of the past.