It’s certainly beginning to feel as though the end of the kickoff is a foregone conclusion in the NFL. Perhaps it won’t happen immediately, but the way the conversation has been developing this offseason strongly points to the likelihood that the play will either disappear entirely or be fundamentally altered.
The big blow from the NFL’s point of view came this offseason courtesy of an internal study that revealed a drastically higher occurrence of concussion on kickoffs than on all other plays. The study also identified that concussions even occur on kickoffs that end in touchbacks (and if you watch the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Roosevelt Nix or Vince Williams, you probably know why).
Commissioner Rodger Goodell made the rounds n the buildup to the draft last night, and one of the topics that he was asked to address was the fate of the kickoff. He confirmed to Rich Eisen that the league’s studies do show “a higher incident of injuries on that play”.
“We’ve tried to look at this and sort of what is it we can do to make it a safer play but also improve the excitement of it?”, he said. “And there’s actually been some creative thinking that we’re going to discuss again next week. And several different concepts [from] special-teams coaches and other coaches. We even have one from a well-known college coach that came up with alternatives, but really exciting plays”.
I talked earlier in the offseason about Steve Tasker, a former special teams ace, who believed the death of the kickoff is just around the corner, but he also expressed optimism that something of comparable entertainment value could be installed to take its place.
Tasker will be a part of that discussion that Goodell referenced in the above quote, a meeting of former coaches and players and other ‘experts’ on the topic that will gather in early May to discuss the future of the kickoff. It may be too late to see something for this season, but change could perhaps come as early as next season.
The NFL could be waiting to see what sort of results the NCAA produces after implementing a new touchback ahead of the 2018 season. Starting this year, receiving teams will be allowed to call for a fair catch resulting in a touchback on kickoffs anywhere inside the 25-yard line.
As pointed out, simply increasing the frequency of touchbacks however does not eliminate the threat of injuries, particularly head injuries, during kickoffs. And it would make no sense to have every kickoff result in a touchback—if it reached that point then the play would be eliminated entirely.
There are some strong opinions out there regarding the league’s evident desire to replace the kickoff with something else, but at least that seems to be an improvement from their notion of eliminating a change-of-possession play entirely. Those who will be hurt the most of course are the fringe players who earn roster spots thanks to their ability to contribute on special teams.