Monday, June 13, 2016

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

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’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.”

by Robert Mays, The Ringer |  Read more:
Image: Getty