Every year around this time, I get pretty excited for college football to begin. I usually search YouTube endlessly, trying to find the perfect compilation of hard hits and highlights to satiate my hunger. It doesn’t take long before I settle onto a video, or two, or three and become lost in a sea of tackling carnage.
As a former player, this gets me seriously hyped. The feeling of laying the perfect hit on someone (not injuring them, of course) is indescribable. It’s a precise mix of timing, force, and just the right amount of aggression to send a message that I’ve come to play. I’m putting the crowd and the opposing team on notice that I’m not one to be trifled with.
I say this because these are the types of elements that make football as unique and addictive as it is. On the flip side, for every highlight reel tackle, there are unfortunate incidents where players are severely injured and on the rarest of occasions, players lose their lives.
All that said, there’s a serious hot button issue circulating around all levels of football concerning the overall safety and necessity of kickoffs. As we know, football itself is undergoing a massive overhaul in the realm of player safety. And to a larger degree, it’s the financial bottom line of these changes that can and will impact the game. The latter is a conversation for another time. For now, let’s narrow our focus on whether kickoffs are actually necessary.
I cannot imagine the game without the kickoff. It’s the moment in time where my adrenaline was at its highest. From the stare down with the opposing special teams unit to the roar of the crowd anxiously waiting to set things off. It was where you sized up your blocking or coverage assignment, determined your plan of attack, and ultimately “laid a hat” on someone.
I played football in a time that’s much different than what I witness now. The players are, by and large, the same but the mentality of the game is different. Due to the game’s massive popularity and subsequent financial viability, other interests have crept into the fold. I digress. That’s another story for another time.
I am going to look at this subject with as much of an unbiased eye as possible. I am all for player safety. The intent of the game is not to deliberately injure one another. However, it is a game of controlled aggression, intimidation, physicality, will-bending, and dominance. The key word being controlled.
With those parameters in place as a cornerstone mentality to be effective in the game of football, it seems a little incongruent to now scale back that approach in the name of “safety.” So it’s “safe” to say that I am not in favor of removing kickoffs from the game. However, I am open to understanding the argument from a different perspective, if possible.
The Impact of Removing the Kickoff from the Game
Admittedly so, from a physical perspective, the kickoff is the most intense and physically vulnerable a player can and will be of the three phases of the game. Depending on your team, (kickoff or return) you are exposed to the most amount of physical contact in any given amount of time.
On the kickoff team, your job is to sprint 60 or so yards, while maintaining proper lane coverage and tackle the returner. Now, before you get remotely close, you must bust through the return wall and seek out the ball carrier. And by bust I mean literally run smack dab into another human being at top speed, hoping to weaken the wall set up to protect the returner. Depending on your size and the speed at which you cover ground, this can be a tremendous impact. Think of it like charging soldiers in war time. Once they clash, it can be a disorienting experience.
On kickoff coverage, at top, straight-line speed, it’s extremely difficult to change direction on a dime. Few are blessed to do so. For the others that are not, those players are exposed to serious injury to their lower extremities with every kickoff.
Usually, you’re coached to establish lane coverage as quickly as possible (that’s where the sprinting comes in) and once you’ve reached the return team, breakdown (slow down, widen your stance to gain balance, center yourself and prepare to take on a blocker or tackle the returner). Now keep in mind, the blockers for the return team are charging you and high speeds as well. So if you break down too early, you’re liable to get obliterated. In the end, it just becomes a demolition derby with bodies flying everywhere.
By eliminating the kickoff, there will be less direct collisions between players at high speeds and awkward angles. Also, blindside blocks, blocks in the back, and helmet-to-helmet hits will be lessened. Not eliminated, but lessened.
According to a study by the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, 16% of injuries occur during kickoffs. Although the percentage is low, they are finding that those injuries are the most severe. In May of this year, Pop Warner football leagues have eliminated the kickoff for teams 10 years of age and under.
The NFL and NCAA rules committees have not had any formal discussion on eliminating the kickoff and will not broach the subject until after the 2017 season. Instead, they have moved up the kickoff placement to the 35-yard line to increase the number of touchbacks, therefore limiting the amount of returns and possible injuries. I can understand the intent of the rule change. Less is more in the vein that players will sustain less injury, therefore keeping quality players (product) on the field at all times. Get my drift?
Why the Kickoff is Necessary
Kickoffs have been a part of the game since its inception. Throughout all the modifications in football over the years, the kickoff has remained one of the few constants. It’s how you begin the game, simply put. It’s as iconic as the tip-off in basketball or the face-off for the puck in hockey. It wouldn’t be football without it.
Safety aside, let’s looks at the importance of the kickoff. First, it’s a positioning battle. It’s all about location in football. Where you begin determines the strategy you use to score.
If you start on your own 40-yard line, offenses don’t feel the pressure of being backed up to their own goal line. In that, offenses are more prone to exact more diverse play calls.
If you start at the 25-yard line or closer, typically, the offense will scale back the offense until they establish a better yard placement on the field, which is why you see more runs and short passes in those situations.
Another aspect to look at in regards to the importance of the kickoff is that it directly affects the type of personnel each team carries. Every team has a return specialist. Usually, they have great top end speed and elusiveness to maneuver through the carnage and gain as many yards as possible.
However, they may be lacking in other skill-sets that would not enable them to play offense or defense. Players like Devin Hester, Ted Ginn, Jr. (to a lesser degree) and the like would not have the opportunity to play football if it weren’t for special teams. This isn’t limited to just returners, I’m talking the entire special teams units altogether. Every player has a specific skill-set, and it just so happens that it fits in line with either setting up or disrupting a return.
Just as field position is vital to the game of football, momentum is just as, if not more, important. Momentum sparks, drives, and changes the complexions of the game. How many times have you seen your team down by a score with seconds to go, only to have a kickoff, or punt return for that matter, completely change the outcome. Kickoffs are as majestic as the Hail Mary. The fortunes of a team are transformed in the blink of an eye.
In the end, I may be a football purist, but I do see and understand the level of concern folks may share. It’s the purist in me that always comes back to, “this is football!” It’s meant to be violent. I’m not advocating deliberate injuries. However, I am in favor of setting a tone. Tackles, stiff arms, jukes, and kickoff returns set a tone. It’s that very tone that either helps earn the victory or invites defeat.
Is there a happy medium that can be reached? Frankly, I don’t think so. If we go by an adjusted field placement, they’ll be a shift in strategy that could possibly augment the game, making it less exciting. Not to mention, you eliminate the crowd’s involvement. There’s nothing more exciting than to see thousands of bulbs flash during teh opening kickoff.
I can’t imagine a crowd getting hype over the offense and defense simply taking the field. There’s no momentum, no emotion, no signifying moment that lets the player and you, the fan, know that there’s a battle brewing. Until the 2017 season ends and the rules committee bump heads on whether to change a rule as vital to the game as the quarterback, we’ll just savor these moments and enjoy football the way it was meant to be.
Featured image courtesy of Erik Drost/ Flickr