NFL poised to explore possible elimination of kickoffs

By Nick Shook
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We might be looking at the twilight of kickoffs in the NFL.

Packers president Mark Murphy, a member of the NFL Competition Committee, told reportersWednesday that despite recent rule changes aimed at enhancing safety, injury data reveals that kickoffs remain an area of concern.

A temporary change (made permanent this week) moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line — increasing the incentive to kneel in the end zone instead of bringing it out — has cut down on the number of returns, but hasn’t reduced the likelihood of players suffering concussions on the play. And this is after the league moved the kickoff location up five yards with the intention of shortening the distance so as to lower the top speeds of players running downfield on kickoff coverage.

None of this has helped. The league’s leaders aren’t sitting by idly, instead planning to assemble head coaches and special-teams coordinators to craft a solution — which very well could include elimination of the play altogether.

“If you don’t make changes to make it safer, we’re going to do away with it. It’s that serious,” Murphy said of what the message to the collection of coaches and coordinators would be. “It’s by far the most dangerous play in the game.”

It seems highly unlikely a change would occur in time for the 2018 season — “they’re not there yet,” NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport said Wednesday on Up To The Minute Live. But in looking further down the road, it’s not difficult to imagine a game that simply switches possession by placing the ball on a team’s own 25.

The most important indicator that this is more possible than one might have expected: Concussions are even happening on kicks that aren’t returned.

“The other thing that’s kind of frustrating,” Murphy said, “is there were concussions on touchbacks. So even though there’s no return, [the committee is] looking at what kind of things you can do to make sure people were aware that there’s not even a return. You see this, too: One player lets up, the player covering lets up, and one of the blockers comes over and, you know. That creates problems when you’ve got one player going half-speed and the other one full speed.”

Kickoffs are the most harrowing play in football: Eleven men running at full speed down field at 10 men running directly toward them, with the sole intention of colliding in order to create space for a single ballcarrier. There have been rule changes to limit damage at various levels of the game — removal of multiple-man wedge blocking, for example — but the danger still exists. It doesn’t take a pile of spreadsheets to tell you the game’s participants are at the most risk when approached from a blind side, especially when not moving at full speed. This play seems to create a higher chance of such a thing happening, simply due to the nature of it.

As the league moves toward legislating a safer game, the extinction of kickoffs could be next. It’s already missing from some of the lower levels of the game (think middle school football). Sure, it might cost a handful of return specialists their jobs in the long run, but could keep far more players healthy. In the end, that’s what is most valuable.

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