The greatest trick football ever pulled was convincing its fans that kickoffs are exciting.
When you picture a kickoff, you might picture Devin Hester returning the opening kick of Super Bowl XLI, juking one defender, juking another, and then sprinting at hyperspeed toward the end zone with the entire Colts roster in his rearview. But the average kickoff is perhaps the most boring play in sports. Kickoffs take longer to set up than any other football play, and the most common result is a touchback: 1,444 of the 2,550 kickoffs (56.6 percent) in the NFL last season were just that. Twenty-two players lined up, a kicker booted the ball out of the end zone, and then everyone trotted off the field, allowing television networks to squeeze in two commercial breaks around zero seconds of action.
There were only seven kickoffs returned for touchdowns in 2017, making a touchback 206 times more likely to happen. A kickoff was returned for a touchdown in 1.4 percent of games and just 0.27 percent of the time. As SB Nation’s Jon Bois explained in a video last year, 96.3 percent of kickoffs from 2011 to 2016 gave the returning team the ball between its own 10- and 40-yard lines, meaning that even when players did elect to attempt a return, they rarely gave their offense possession far from the 25-yard line, where teams take over following a touchback.
Boring plays are forgivable. But kickoffs, by their nature, are also wildly unsafe—Mark Murphy, a member of the league’s competition committee, called it “by far the most dangerous play in the game.” With players sprinting at each other from 30-40 yards away instead of lining up mere feet apart, the potential for traumatic neck and head injuries dramatically rises. The NFL says a kickoff is five times as likely to cause concussions than a scrimmage play—and if the NFL acknowledges that something is dangerous, it’s probably really freakin’ dangerous. This goes beyond just the pro game; a disproportionately high number of the high school athletes who have died playing football have died on kickoffs.
The NFL considered eliminating the kickoff. According to ESPN, NFL vice president Troy Vincent talked to special teams coaches as if getting rid of the play was a done deal. Instead, this week the league’s owners voted on and approved a series of changes that will tweak the kickoff more than it’s ever been tweaked. The kickoff has been saved, at least temporarily. Now it’s time to determine whether saving the kickoff was worth it.
In the coming decades, football has a moral and practical obligation to revamp itself. Moral because the sport is dangerous to the long-term health of its players—some of whom are our heroes, some of whom are our loved ones. Practical because if the sport goes on unchecked, it will die wholesale. Participation will drop; fan interest will wane; legal threats will proliferate.
Here is a thought experiment regarding a potential football revamp: List all of the things about football that you love. My top five consists of trick plays, ballcarriers bowling over defenders, dual-threat quarterbacks, catches that don’t make physical sense, and—please, don’t laugh at me—punts. (I love punts. Punts are everything kickoffs wish they were.) Now, list all of the things about football that you know are dangerous.
Sometimes, you will find things end up on both lists. For example, I love enormous hits. Aesthetically, the most violent ones are best, but I also know how much lasting harm they can cause to the players involved. This is where football must reckon with itself: How do you get rid of as many things from the second list as possible while simultaneously trying to maintain the first list? What level of risk are we willing to expose our heroes and loved ones to in order to preserve the sport we love?
These questions are hard. What shouldn’t be hard, however, is getting rid of the parts of football that are equal parts dangerous and unenjoyable. These things should be thrown in the trash. For me, kickoffs are A1 on this list. They’re the appendix of the sport: a vestigial remnant of the game’s rugby ancestry that could easily be removed entirely. More than that, if they’re not, and something goes horribly wrong on a kickoff, it could very well lead to the sport’s downfall. I believe that football needs a kickoffectomy.
But the NFL hasn’t been willing to go there yet. The NFL’s recent attempts at fixing kickoffs hardly amounted to attempts at all. In 2011, the league moved the spot on kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, making it that much easier for kickers to reach the end zone. In 2016, the league moved the spot that offenses would start possessions on after touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25, marginally incentivizing teams to accept touchbacks.
These were both half-measures: Instead of making kickoffs demonstrably safer, the NFL simply made it more likely that teams would avoid returning the ball. Clearly, the league understood that kickoff returns posed a major risk to player health, and instead of outlawing them, just tried to cut down on the total number. College football made a similar rule change this year; it made it so that any fair catch on a kickoff between the receiving team’s end zone and the 25-yard line can function as a touchback, giving the receiving team the option to decline a return even if the opposing kicker can’t reach the end zone. Again, the idea is to disincentivize kickoff returns.
These updates make kickoffs less exciting, increasing the percentage of them that have no action whatsoever. And these changes also don’t make kickoffs safe: Even on touchbacks, coverage men and blockers still slam into each other at high speeds, unsure whether the return man will carry the ball out of the end zone.
The NFL’s latest series of rule changes, however, does appear set to change the play more substantially. The competition committee worked with special teams coaches around the league—a rare move—to craft proposals designed to make kickoffs safer. Chief among them: Players on the kicking team will no longer be allowed to begin the play with a running start; the receiving team must start each kickoff with eight players within 15 yards of the kicking spot; and the receiving team’s blockers will no longer be permitted to form multiplayer “wedges” to take out opponents.
You can see how these changes will hypothetically make the play safer: By getting rid of the kicking team’s pre-kick run-up and aligning most of the receiving team’s blockers near the line of scrimmage, players shouldn’t have enough space to sprint into each other at full speed. I suspect these rules will also yield longer returns: Given the coverage team won’t be allowed to take a running start and that the return team will have blockers installed upfield, return men should make it farther downfield before encountering traffic. The Bears’ Tarik Cohen noted that the rule changes will give kickoffs “more like a punt return vibe,” which is good. (Again: I love punt returns.)
The other major difference this time around is the competition committee admits these changes could fail. Murphy told ESPN earlier this week that the play remains on “a short leash”; he said in March that if the updates don’t make the play drastically safer, then “we’re going to do away with it.”
I think the NFL would be wise to do away with the kickoff altogether. But at the very least, I’m encouraged that the league seems seriously interested in recalibrating here. It seems to have thought through what’s great about the kickoff and what makes it dangerous, and tried to hold on to as much of the good stuff as possible while attempting to eliminate the bad.