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Armour: NFL Ponders the Future of Kickoffs

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Photo: Brian Fluharty / USA TODAY Sports Images

By Nancy Armour |

The kickoff’s days in the NFL are numbered.

Oh, I know what Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said. With kickoffs among the topics of discussion at this week’s league meetings, Vincent insisted Tuesday morning that the NFL is looking to modify the play, not eliminate it.

“Absolutely not,” Vincent said.

But whether the league eliminates kickoffs or simply changes the rules to the point where they become irrelevant, it doesn’t really matter. The result will be the same.

And it’s long overdue.

While the NFL remains stubborn in its refusal to acknowledge a definitive link between football and neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – There could be other factors! More research needs to be done! – it is at least making an effort to take the head out of the game. Violent hits that were once celebrated on DVDs and SportsCenter have been outlawed. Defenseless receivers now get virtually the same protected status once reserved for quarterbacks.

But the kickoff remains by far the most dangerous play in football. You remember those videos with the crash-test dummies, right? Kickoffs are football’s equivalent.

After the owners meeting in March, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy told ESPN that the league’s medical staff had presented data showing concussions were five times as likely to happen on kickoffs as on an average play. No surprise, given that it involves collisions of 200- and 300-pound men who have been running at full speed for half the length of the field or more.

The NFL has already tried to limit the carnage. In 2011, it moved kickoffs up five yards, the idea being it would result in more touchbacks. At that March meeting, owners voted to put touchbacks at the 25-yard line, further reducing the incentive for returns.

But that, Murphy warned, would not be enough.

“If you don’t make changes to make it safer, we’re going to do away with it,” Murphy, a member of the competition committee, said then. “It’s that serious.”

The alarm bell has apparently been heard. While Vincent didn’t say what the proposals are that will be considered Wednesday, a look at what the NCAA did last month could offer a clue. College teams can now call for a fair catch anywhere inside the 25-yard line and it will result in a touchback.

When you consider that touchbacks have been moved up to the 25-yard line, it makes the idea of returning a kick as silly as going for a two-point conversion in the first quarter. Why bother?

Sure, there are the occasional kicks that get returned for touchdowns, but they are fast taking on unicorn status. Out of more than 1,000 kickoffs in the NFL last season, seven were returned for touchdowns.

More likely is that a return gets you somewhere between the 20- and 25-yard line. Of the 32 NFL teams, Atlanta was the only one to average better than 25 yards on kickoff returns last season, and the Falcons averaged 26.2 yards.

That’s a lot of risk for little reward – especially if the NFL would adopt the NCAA rule change or something similar.

This also would still allow for onside kicks. While rare, and usually not occurring until late in a game, the possibility would address the league’s concern of kickoffs becoming, as Vincent said, “ceremonial.”

Traditionalists might balk at the changes, muttering something about the game becoming too soft. But safety concerns surrounding football are real, and they aren’t going away. The NFL has to adapt, or it will eventually become extinct.

Making kickoffs irrelevant won’t make a marked difference in the game, but it will reduce injuries and head trauma. By protecting the future health of its players, the NFL is protecting itself, too.

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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