NEW YORK — In March, Dave Toub was in Orlando to take part in the NFL’s Career Development Symposium, a few days before the annual league meeting in which rule changes are discussed. Over breakfast with Troy Vincent, the NFL’s EVP of football operations, Toub, the Chiefs’ special teams coach, was told that the kickoff was an endangered play.
“He said, ‘You know the kickoff is going to disappear,’” recalls Toub. “He just stated it like that. I said, ‘Well, wait. What about the steps? Let’s make some adjustments.’”
Over the last month or so, Toub and a core group of nine special teams coaches around the league put together a proposal for a modified kickoff, an effort to keep the play as part of the game by making it safer. That proposal was presented on Wednesday to a room of coaches, current and former players, team owners and NFL executives, as part of two days of meetings about ways to modify the game in the name of player safety. For now, the NFL will not eliminate the kickoff, but it will simply change it, starting with the 2018 season, pending a vote by NFL teams in Atlanta later this month.
The final draft of the rule change is still being written but modifications are expected to include no running start for the kicking team; no more wedges; three players deep downfield, at most, on the return team, and at least eight players within 15 yards of where the ball is kicked; no hitting in the 15-yard zone between where the ball is kicked and the front line of the return team; and no motion by the kicking team until the ball is kicked.
The overall idea is to make the kickoff more like the punt, creating a play in which the players will be running with each other down the field, rather than running at each other full steam ahead. The new formation and alignment in this play could also discourage use of bigger linemen, which can often result in dangerous, mismatched collisions with smaller players. Another suggestion that’s likely to be a point of emphasis this season is for players to make a cross signal with their arms on kickoffs that are clearly going to be touchbacks, with the aim of reducing injuries on these so-called dead plays, by calling off teammates and opponents a second or two sooner.
Toub said he was confident this change would both keep the kickoff in the game and make it safer.
“I will be surprised if we don’t make progress on this play,” added Falcons president Rich McKay, chair of the NFL’s competition committee.
The question is, how much safer? And how much progress? The kickoff has gone through many modifications in the past—most recently, moving the touchback to the 25-yard line to try to discourage returns—but it still remains the game’s most dangerous play. Packers CEO Mark Murphy said, according to data presented at the league meetings in March, players are five times as likely to have a concussion on a kickoff play than on a running or passing play. McKay said there were a total of 71 concussions on kickoffs sustained by NFL players from 2015-17. About one-third of those concussions, McKay said, occurred from collisions involving the two-man wedge, so the elimination of that part of the play is one area in which they believe they’ll make significant progress.
Murphy described a “sense of urgency” to make a change starting in the 2018 season, rather than, say, test it out in the preseason and table it for another year.
“It is part of the fabric of our game; it is exciting,” Murphy said of the kickoff. “One of the best things about our game is you can catch up with an on-side kick. So to completely lose some of those things would be a big change in the game, but when you are staring at injury data, you need to do something.”
For now, this is an incremental step, not a drastic one. As Bills special teams legend Steve Tasker put it, fans might not even notice the changes to the kickoff. The NFL will try out these rule changes this season, and see what impact they make. One of the major factors influencing current and future rules changes is the vast cache of injury data the NFL is collecting. In 2016, the NFL and its 32 club owners committed $100 million to its Play Smart Play Safe initiative, an investment which has been used in part to fund work by researchers at the University of Virginia to chart close to 150 variables for each concussion sustained in the NFL. This information helps identify trends and inform potential rule changes based on when and how concussions are occurring.
Other possible modifications for the kickoff came up during Wednesday’s meeting. One was creating incentives for teams to try to kick it deep by awarding a shorter touchback (20-yard-line instead of the 25) if the ball goes through the uprights or out the back of the end zone. But because that would affect roster composition, McKay said, it would be unfair to teams to consider such a change at this point in the offseason. The college fair catch rule, which allows teams to fair catch kickoffs inside the 25-yard-line and receive a touchback, and the high school rule, in which once a kickoff is a dead ball as soon as it crosses the goal line, also came up but were not serious considerations at this time.
But, it’s possible more drastic changes are considered in the not-too-distant future. Murphy was cautiously optimistic but also advised that the state of the kickoff will be reassessed yearly. “I think it’s a pretty short leash,” he said.
At one point during Wednesday’s meeting, an injury reel of injuries sustained on kickoffs was played for the room. Some were of the run-of-the-mill, unavoidable variety, such as a returner breaking his foot. But others were difficult to watch: free runners racing downfield and lighting up opponents that never saw them coming; bigger players mauling smaller ones; and one defensive back down on the turf, concussed, on a touchback.
“It wasn’t just the numbers that drove us,” McKay said, “it was the tape.”
Only time will tell if it’s enough to modify the kickoff—or if it’s simply too dangerous of a play to remain in the game at all.