Why Not Just Get Rid of Kickoffs?

The idea was actually briefly considered, Len Pasquarelli reports. A less-drastic proposal — if approved on Tuesday — would mean more headaches for special teams coordinators, who might not have an offseason to work out the kinks.

In the wake of a 2010 season in which kickoff returns lent plenty of excitement to the game, with runbacks for touchdowns at near-record numbers, the proposed rules changes unveiled by the competition committee on Wednesday morning might seem fairly dramatic.

But not nearly as drastic as one of the changes batted around by committee members and NFL officials.

How about eliminating kickoffs altogether?

It would be gross hyperbole to suggest the change was seriously considered by the influential committee, during its annual confab in Naples, Fla., in the week preceding the league meeting that begins Sunday in New Orleans. But while The Sports Xchange doesn't have any specific details about how a kickoff-less game would have worked, the total elimination of a play that has become woven into the fabric of the sport but which committee members and others feel is potentially perilous, was one of the possibilities raised.

Did the idea get very far? No, not really. But the fact that it was even informally proposed demonstrates that most committee members consider the kickoff play a dangerous one. And committee members and game administrators are, to some extent, willing to think outside the box to address it.

"There are just too many concussions and head injuries that come on kickoffs ... to a greater extent than on other plays," Atlanta Falcons president and competition committee chairman Rich McKay said, in explaining a set of kickoff-related rules changes, which includes returning the kickoff site to the 35-yard line. "We think (the changes) will help make it safer."

Not since the serious spinal injury to Buffalo's Kevin Everett in 2007, which left the tight end paralyzed before he eventually walked again, has there been a "headline" catastrophic injury on a kickoff. But the committee has seen its share of bone-chilling collisions on kickoffs and feels strongly that the changes — moving the kickoff point, mandating that coverage players line up within 5 yards of the ball to shorten their running start, outlawing a "wedge" of any type — will add to the safety factor to which the NFL has been so conscious of in recent seasons.

Of course, the changes recommended by the competition committee are only proposals and must be approved by three-quarters of the owners in a Tuesday vote. Most seem to feel the proposals will pass, but they are not quite a slam-dunk. At least not if some special teams coaches surveyed over the past couple days have any sway over their owners.

"Safety is good, and we're all for it, but they keep coming back to (special teams coaches) to make all the adjustments," one NFC assistant said. "You don't want to come across as a bad guy, someone who doesn't worry about (the safety) aspect, but sometimes you can't help but feel that we're the only ones they're asking to change."

The changes represent the second time in three years the competition committee has proposed a fairly dramatic alteration to kickoffs.

For 2009, the league approved the change that outlawed the "wedge" formation of more than two blockers. Special teams coaches adjusted well enough over the two seasons since the change was made that there were 23 kickoffs returned for touchdowns in 2010, the second-most (there were 25 in 2007) since the NFL moved the kickoff to the 30-yard line in 1994. That was almost 60 percent higher than the average (14.6 touchdowns) for the 17 years since the kickoff point changed.

But the menu of alterations being proposed for the 2011 season, provided there is one, of course, will further tax special teams coaches. As evidenced by the number of kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009 and 2010 — the 41 combined scores those seasons were the most in any two-year period since the '94 switch — coaches and players tend to adapt pretty quickly. But just the number of changes for 2011 could take some time to which to become accustomed.


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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.


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