There has to be a better way
Thursday night’s game between the Packers and the Cardinals was a great one. An injury-depleted Green Bay team, missing several key players on both sides of the ball, went on the road and beat the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team on a clutch defensive play in endzone in the game’s final seconds. It doesn’t get much better than that.
But the game was also marred by a scary moment in the third quarter when the Packers’ Kylin Hill and the Cardinals’ Jonathan Ward collided on a kickoff return. Ward’s head slammed into Hill’s legs and both players laid on the ground for a while before being taken off on carts. Ward stayed down longer than Hill and needed to be placed on a stretcher. Hill was ruled out with a knee injury and Hill was evaluated for a neck injury and potential concussion.
Here’s what it looked like in slow motion:
The slowed-down video shows Hill’s leg bend unnaturally and Ward exhibiting the fencing response associated with concussions, but the full-speed video is even more brutal. It shows just how hard the collision was:
The play reignited the debate over the future of the kickoff. The NFL has made small tweaks to the kickoff rules in recent years in an attempt to make the play safer. Concussions on kickoffs dropped by 35% in 2018 after the league banned coverage teams from getting running starts and restricted where the return team’s players can set up and banned wedge blocks. But the play is still obviously a dangerous one, and it’s time for the NFL to come up with a better solution that prevents players from risking their health for just a couple of yards. Just ask the guy everyone always agrees with: Skip Bayless.
Bayless’s job is to come up with the worst opinions imaginable and say them on TV to make people mad. Maybe he was trolling the “real” football fans in his audience who think keeping athletes safe is a sign of the weakness responsible for America’s downfall, but his take is right. The kickoff is a perfunctory play. This year, 60% of kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. Teams average only about two returns per game and the average return goes for just 22 yards. Rarely does a kickoff swing a game or even a drive.
The only sure way to remove the risk of injury would be to do away with the kickoff entirely by just placing the ball at the 25-yard line on a change of possession, which would be ridiculous. But there are a few ways to make the play safer. You could limit the number of kick returns by moving the touchback to the 30-yard line thus incentivizing players to take a knee more often. But then when the kick is returned, the play would still be just as dangerous as before. Instead, the league should think about completely overhauling the kickoff to make it inherently less dangerous.
In 2011, Greg Schiano proposed replacing the kickoff with a punt—not like the free kick after a safety, but a normal punt with both teams lined up across from each other. Because blockers and gunners run down the field in the same direction, you don’t have the same dangerous high-speed collisions that you do on a kickoff.
Personally, I’m a fan of the kickoff that the short-lived rebooted XFL used in 2020 where the coverage team and the blockers line up five yards apart from each other and aren’t allowed to move until the ball is caught.
Former Stanford offensive lineman Sam Schwartzstein was the director of football operations for the XFL and was part of the team that came up with the league’s rules. He said on Twitter after Thursday night’s collision that his version of the kickoff resulted in no injuries and had a return rate of 93%.
The XFL rule is safer because it prevents the sort of full-speed, head-on collisions that result in the most injuries. It also increases action. Since the kicker kicks off from his own 25-yard line, the ball rarely reaches the end zone for a touchback. The return man also has a chance to pick up speed before reaching the defenders, creating a chance for more big plays. The rule also forces kickers to be more precise with their kicks because a kick that reaches the end zone in the air can be downed for a “major touchack” that brings the ball out to the 35. After a kick that bounces in front of the goal line and is downed in the end zone, the receiving team gets the ball at the 15.
The NFL is constantly tinkering with its rules and always says that it is committed to player safety. If it’s serious about that, it’ll do something about the kickoff this offseason. There isn’t a perfect solution, but the league needs to at least start coming up with proposals to try to make the game safer.
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