The NCAA Football Rules Committee opted for a half measure last week. Those who have binged Breaking Bad know what that means. It’s half a solution to a whole problem, and the end result is usually no solution at all.
The committee, which has an unenviable task because any decision it makes will draw complaints from coaches, players, fans or all of the above, has advanced a potential rule change that would allow return teams to fair catch a kickoff anywhere inside the 25-yard line and have the ball brought out to the 25. In other words, a touchback. Previously, the ball had to cross the goal line to merit a touchback. This change is being considered in the interest of player safety, and committee members’ hearts are absolutely in the right place. We can politicize the backlash against football all we want, but the truth is the game must get safer if we’d like it to exist past the next few generations. The committee has to straddle the line between making the game safer and keeping the contact beloved by fans and players.
The problem is the committee’s half measure makes the game more boring while not making it much safer. A much more effective solution was proposed by a coach seven years ago. It’s the full measure as opposed to the committee’s half measure. Not only would it make the game safer, it also would make it more interesting. Who is this prescient coach? You’re not going to like the answer, Tennessee fans.
It’s Greg Schiano.
When the Ohio State defensive coordinator was the head coach at Rutgers, he began thinking about ways to eliminate the kickoff after Scarlet Knights defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed making a tackle on a kickoff against Army in 2010. In 2011, Schiano presented his idea.
• Instead of kicking off, teams would punt from the 35. (When Schiano proposed his rule, kickoffs were from the 30. They’re now kicked from the 35, so we’ll adjust his number.) This would keep tacklers from slamming into blockers with a 30-yard head of steam. On punts, blockers shadow tacklers from the line of scrimmage to the point of the return. The collisions happen at a much lower speed.
• Instead of the onside kick—probably the most dangerous play in football—teams could run one offensive play from the 35. To keep the ball, they’d be required to gain 15 yards. (That figure could be adjusted to match the historic success rate of onside kicks.) If they didn’t make the required yardage, the opposing team would get the ball at the spot of the tackle.
These measures would do far more to reach the goal the committee is trying to achieve here. If the proposed rule passes, it will eliminate a lot of high-speed collisions involving return men and tacklers, but it will do little to eliminate the ones between blockers and would-be tacklers. The TV cameras rarely show this, but on kickoffs that go into the end zone now, the first wall of blockers still slams into the oncoming group of tacklers. They have to do this, because at that point, they have no way of knowing whether the ball has gone into the end zone. If the new rule is adopted, these collisions would still take place because the blockers and tacklers won’t know if the return man has fair caught the ball.
The previous iteration of the rules committee changed the kickoff before the 2012 season to reduce the number of kickoffs returned. The kickoff was moved from the 30 to the 35, and a touchback came out to the 25 rather than the 20. This made it easier to kick the ball into the end zone, and it incentivized teams to avoid returning the kick unless the return man had a wide-open hole through which to run. The change worked exactly as intended. In 2011, 16.4% of FBS kickoffs went for touchbacks. In 2012, 35.9% went for touchbacks. That number rose about one percent a year for four years, then jumped from 39% in 2016 to 42.4% last season. Some coaches did not want to hand the opponent the ball on the 25, though. So they sought kickers who could kick the ball high but keep it within the field of play. (This is known as a sky kick.) Ideally, the return man would have to catch the ball in a corner inside the five. This way, he’d almost certainly get tackled before reaching the 25. Plus, it increased the likelihood of a game-changing fumble. Unfortunately, it also increased the likelihood of a high-speed pileup—which could lead to more catastrophic injuries such as the one LeGrand suffered.
The proposed change is well-meaning. Committee members know any drastic changes will meet with resistance, so they’re trying to make them gradually so they can build a safer game without scaring off the significant portion of the fan base that fears any kind of change. The problem is the rule change doesn’t solve the problem it purports to solve nearly as well as Schiano’s seven-year-old idea.
The rule is being changed to eliminate sky kicks, but the coaches who employ the sky kick will merely switch to the squib kick. That may produce some wild bounces and some very interesting field position fluctuations, but it won’t really reduce the number of high-speed collisions. Meanwhile, touchbacks will increase, but high-speed collisions between blockers and tacklers on those plays will continue unabated.
Switching to a scrimmage punt in that situation would actually be safer. The return rate on punts already is at the level committee members are seeking. If 42.4% of kickoffs went for touchbacks last year, that means more than 57% were returned. (A small fraction went out of bounds and were neither returned nor downed for a touchback.) This rule change likely will bring that number below 50%. It might even get it below 40%. But teams only returned 26.9% of punts last season. That’s the kind of result the committee seeks.
And even though fewer punts get returned, the probability of the most exciting play—a return man taking it to the house—is higher on a punt than a kickoff. From 2012 to ’17, about seven of every 1,000 punts in the FBS were returned for touchdowns. For kickoffs, the number is closer to six out of every 1,000.
Still, the best part of the Schiano plan is the elimination of onside kicks. No matter how much a kicker practices the onside kick, the shape of the ball and the non-uniformity of the playing surface will combine to produce some strange bounces. That play, no matter how thoroughly drilled, often gets decided by luck. Why not make it a test of actual football skill by pitting the offense against the defense? That would make end-of-game scenarios even more exciting, and it would eliminate the most dangerous play in football.
Perhaps the committee is working its way toward this type of solution. In the release announcing the proposed change, committee members promised to study the data and use it to further tweak the rules. Perhaps people aren’t ready for an idea as radical as Schiano’s—though it seems far less radical today than it did in 2011. Hopefully, this half measure that does nothing is a step toward a full measure that has the dual benefits of making the game safer and more fun to watch.
A Random Ranking
The Academy Awards were handed out Sunday, and I didn’t see any of the movies that won any of the major prizes. I don’t see many movies these days, but the ones I do see I see repeatedly. Or, more specifically, I hear them repeatedly while driving or while trying to get work done around the house. So here are the top five movies released in 2017, and by that I mean the five movies in 2017 that I have listened to at least 87 times each and have seen about 6.75 times each. If your favorite movie isn’t listed here, don’t blame me. Blame my children. Beyond the first two, their taste is pretty shaky.
1. The Lego Batman Movie*
2. Despicable Me 3
3. The Boss Baby
4. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
5. The Emoji Movie
*This actually won Best Picture, right? I didn’t watch the Oscars, but I can’t imagine anything better being produced in 2017.
Three And Out
1. UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin was the story of the NFL combine. I wrote about his bench press experience—which came a day before he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash. If you haven’t read Griffin’s backstory, read the feature I wrote on him in November and check out our piece documenting his inspiring rise on SI TV.
2. The family of late Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski published a letter to Cougars fans thanking them for their support following Hilinski’s suicide in January. Please give it a read. Hilinski’s family and former teammates like NFL-bound quarterback Luke Falk are trying to use this tragedy to help others who may be contemplating suicide. At the combine last week, Falk said he wanted to help create something positive from a terrible situation by helping to raise awareness and by trying to remove the stigma from seeking help for mental health issues.
3. Former Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst will play his final season at Tennessee as a graduate transfer. Chryst opened last season as Stanford’s starter before he was supplanted by K.J. Costello. In Knoxville, he’ll compete against redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano. Quinten Dormady, who opened last season as Tennessee’s starter, already has announced his intention to graduate and transfer.
In other Tennessee news, crews went to work Monday removing the image of former coach Butch Jones from the Neyland Stadium scoreboard.
What’s Eating Andy?
Thank you, Tyra Banks. I had to eat a lot of ribs to get this body, and I’m glad someone truly appreciates it.
So I guess this means I’m finally going to get a chance to model underwear. It’s been fun, SI.
What’s Andy Eating?
I was working on a story in December when a text message popped into my phone. It was from offensive line coach Herb Hand, and he had exciting news. No, it wasn’t job-related. Hand was still at Auburn and wouldn’t move to Texas for another month. This news was beef-related. There are few people whose taste buds I trust more than Hand’s, so I was especially curious when this question appeared on my screen:
Ever hear of a spinalis cut steak?
I had not. Hand explained that he had tried it the night before in Atlanta. He said it was amazing. He then sent me some reading material.
I learned that the spinalis dorsi, or ribeye cap, is the thin section of ribeye that covers the much larger section that clings to the bone. Separated from the rest of the ribeye, it looks like flank steak. I would never dismiss a Hand recommendation, but this image didn’t square with the rave review. What made this taste better than the giant cowboy cut ribeyes I love so much?
Last week in Indianapolis, I learned for myself.
I usually order a ribeye because the heavy marbling makes it the most flavorful cut available at the average steakhouse. Still, I love the tenderness of the filet. My all-time favorite steak remains the Fabulous Filet, a 20-ounce, center-cut monster served by a steakhouse called Charley’s that has locations in Tampa and Orlando. I never dreamed it was possible to combine the best aspects of both cuts—until last week.
While the movers and shakers of the NFL moved and shook around the bar at Harry and Izzy’s*, the bartender asked if I wanted to hear the specials. The steak special that night was spinalis. It had been about two months since that text conversation with Hand, so I didn’t realize at first that this was the magical cut he’d told me about. The bartender had gotten this reaction before. Spinalis isn’t the sexiest name for a steak. “It’s the top of the ribeye,” she said. That jogged my memory. “Yes,” I said. “That one. Rare, please.”
*St. Elmo is the famous steakhouse in Indianapolis. It is best known for aged steaks and a shrimp cocktail that is guaranteed to clear the sinuses. Harry and Izzy’s is next door, and they share a kitchen and most of the menu. If St. Elmo is mobbed—and it usually is—just go to Harry and Izzy’s.
A plate arrived holding about a pound of flat steak. Compared to the magnificent bone-in beasts I usually order at a place like Harry and Izzy’s, it didn’t look like much. Then I took a bite.
Imagine a ribeye and a filet mignon meet when their cartons bump together at the grocery store. They flirt. They go on a few dates. They shack up. After some gentle pressure from their parents, they get married. Then, wouldn’t you know it, filet has a steakhouse roll in the oven. That baby is the spinalis. It has all the fat and flavor of the ribeye, but it’s fork-tender like the filet.
And if you catch the right night at the right steakhouse, you get to eat that baby.