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The Price of Player Safety: What Would the NFL Lose by Eliminating Kickoffs?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back when people still needed cameras to take pictures, every Super Bowl highlight started the same way. As a line of 11 men ran in unison toward a teed-up football, thousands of flashbulbs exploded on screen, making for a monochromatic light show just before the kicker’s foot swung.

Given the sport’s very nature, every great moment in NFL history has been preceded by a kickoff. For some moments, though, the kickoff has been essential to that greatness. Desmond Howard brought home a Super Bowl MVP award with the Packers on the shoulders of his return work, and the best memory of my football life is still Devin Hester, in Super Bowl XLI, corralling an Adam Vinatieri kick on the 8-yard line and taking it for a touchdown. My euphoria lasted about 10 minutes before Rex Grossman turned into a pumpkin and the Colts started to handle the Bears. But damn, those 10 minutes were sweet.

Hester’s return was the first place my mind went after reading what the Patriots’ Matthew Slater told local reporters after an OTA late last week. Slater, by a wide margin, is the most notable non-kicker, non-returner special teams player in the league; he’s gone to the Pro Bowl in each of the past five years. After being asked about the NFL’s new one-year rule that will place the ball on the 25-yard line following a touchback, he responded with this:

“I’m very disappointed, obviously, in the way we’re discussing the future of the kickoff … The kickoff is a big part of the history of the NFL and the history of football. For us to be sitting here talking about maybe doing away with the kickoff, it’s very disappointing.”

After naming some of the famous return men from his father’s playing days — former Rams great Jackie Slater is his dad! Who knew? — Slater went on.

“The kicking game has meant a lot to the game of football and a lot of players individually and has enabled guys to have careers. You think about [longtime Patriots special teamer] Larry Izzo, you think about myself. Without the kicking game, we don’t have a career. I’m very disappointed with some of the things I hear in regards to getting rid of the kickoff. I surely hope that’s not the case. I hope that’s not the direction we’re moving in, but we’ll see.”

The NFL has been trying to legislate kick returns for a while. From a player-safety perspective, it does make sense: Kickoff returns have been called the most dangerous plays in sports. But the effects of eliminating kickoffs would go beyond making the NFL a safer workplace. It would alter strategic approaches in both game plan and roster construction, all while costing plenty of players their jobs.

The league moved kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line before the 2011 season, and the percentage that resulted in touchbacks jumped from 16.4 percent to 43.5 percent that year before rising steadily to 56 percent in ’15. Still, as ESPN’s Brian Burke and Sharon Katz wrote in March, deeper kicks failed to provide enough of a deterrent. Even with an uptick in touchbacks, the decision to take them wasn’t statistically savvy. According to Burke and Katz, an average kick return yielded an expected .59 points for an offense, while a touchback translated into an expected .29 points. Regardless of whether players were aware of that gap, return men last season still elected to run kickoffs back 46 percent of the time. By giving offenses 5 more yards for taking a knee, the NFL’s hope, clearly, is that this incentive disappears.

When Giants owner and NFL Competition Committee member John Mara was asked about the rule in April, he acknowledged that although the committee was “not at the point where we want to take the kickoff out of the game completely,” it “may be moving in that direction.” Based on Mara’s comments, it feels like the only hang-up preventing the kickoff’s extinction is figuring out how a team, after scoring in the fourth quarter but still trailing, could attempt to get the ball back without an onside kick. If this year’s rule change doesn’t limit the frequency of returns, though, late-game scenarios probably wouldn’t be enough to stop the committee from doing away with kickoffs entirely.

Since this latest rule was passed, there have already been some indicators that the committee might not get the outcome it anticipates. And that starts with teams’ never-ending search for even the slimmest competitive advantage. For the past five years, the ideal kickoff specialist has been someone who could pound the ball out of the end zone and ensure the opposition starts at its own 20-yard line. With touchbacks becoming more punitive, the most valuable kickers may be the ones who can consistently loft high kicks inside the 5 — finding the sweet spot between distance and hang time, and pinning teams inside the 25.

“Every NFL kicker I talked to said he would change to a high, short kick to the goal line,” retired kicker Jay Feely told NFL.com’s Judy Battista in March. “It’s not hard to do at all. The hard part will be the amount of hang time. The best kickers will be able to get 4.4 to 4.6 [second] hang time kicking it to the goal line.”

Not everyone is so convinced — some around the game believe that sort of kick will work better in theory than in practice — but we won’t know for sure until teams actually play this fall. Teams’ desperation for even a tiny edge leads me to think at least a few will try more “mortar” kicks over the course of this season. As long as a given part of the game exists, coaches will do anything they can to milk value from it.

That would disappear if the NFL were to eliminate kickoffs. But along with lost strategy, there’s also the byproduct that Slater fears the most. If a kickoff-less world became the new reality, the league would not only miss out on the flashpoint brilliance of Hester, Josh Cribbs, and Jacoby Jones, but it would also jeopardize many players’ job security.

Plenty of guys earn their roster spots for the work they do on special teams, and that begins with the return men. Even if punts were to remain a major part of football (and it’s tough to see how they wouldn’t), a significant portion of kick returners don’t return them. Among the league’s 25 leaders in total punt returns last season, 15 didn’t double as their team’s primary kick returner. That list includes Darren Sproles, Jarvis Landry, Patrick Peterson, Antonio Brown, and Golden Tate; because there’s still value to be gained on punt returns, using stars remains an option. Kick returns are often reserved for players who don’t play a significant role elsewhere.

Take the case of Cordarrelle Patterson. Even with his struggles at receiver since coming into the league in 2013, he’s been a sight to behold on special teams; he’s led the league in kick return average in two of the past three seasons. If those returns became a thing of the past, there’s a chance one of the more dynamic athletes in the sport would turn into a man without a position.

Slater touched on that possibility in his remarks, but he also spoke out of self-preservation. On every roster, there are a handful of players who don’t see the field on offense or defense but play pivotal roles on kick coverage teams. Typically, those 10 players include a couple of cornerbacks and receivers (like Slater) and a few safeties, but special-teams-focused linebackers populate the majority of those units.

Let’s use the opening kickoff of February’s Super Bowl as an example. Four linebackers chased the Panthers’ Graham Gano’s kick downfield: first-round pick Shaq Thompson, occasional sub A.J. Klein, fifth-round rookie David Mayo, and 2011 undrafted free agent Ben Jacobs. The last three played a combined one snap on defense against the Broncos.

Even with more defenses removing a linebacker from the field on third down, teams often carry six of them on game day, and Carolina’s kickoff team offers insight into why. Linebackers make for ideal special teamers: They’re big enough to take on blocks while chasing down kickoffs (and to hold up as the line on punts), and they’re fast enough to track down both kinds of return men. By eliminating kickoffs, though, the total number of plays for coverage teams would be cut by more than 50 percent (there were 2,559 kickoffs last regular season, compared to 2,437 punts). From a roster construction standpoint, the value of these specialists would be halved.

It isn’t difficult to envision a kickoff-less future in which teams no longer carry six linebackers on game day. Joining Jacobs and Mayo on the punt team in last season’s Super Bowl was reserve defensive end Mario Addison, who filled a similar role along the Panthers’ line. By carrying fewer linebackers, teams could stockpile game-day spots at positions with more value, like those in the defensive line (where fresh bodies and depth are inherently most important) or the secondary (where carrying more players would mean having the ability to match up with different subpackages). And if a given player’s special-teams workload consisted solely of six or seven punts per game, it would be easier for coaches to rationalize throwing higher-profile guys onto a coverage team.

Changes to game-day roster construction would also usher in a different approach to the draft, where a linebacker who offered special-teams value but had a limited defensive upside would be less coveted. Specialty pass rushers or run stuffers would no longer be franchise luxuries; front offices wouldn’t hesitate to roll the dice in later rounds on guys with limited but potent skill sets.

This sort of domino effect is why even a rule change that seems minor never is. The movement to eliminate the kickoff has consequences that trickle down to every facet of the game, and, in this case, it’s easy to understand why players like Slater see problems on the horizon and have bolted the storm doors. Losing kickoffs would mean losing the creation of more moments like some of our favorites in NFL history — from Hester’s Super Bowl sprint to Jones’s heroics a few years later — and, for a sizable number of players, it could mean losing a role and a livelihood. Even initiatives that seem unassailable, like advancing player safety, come with a price.