4th and 15 – Roger Goodell’s crusade against kickoffs
In an article published in Time magazine earlier this month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell brought up the notion that he and the NFL’s competition committee would consider eliminating kickoffs from the game during their offseason meetings. This idea comes about on the heels of a slew of lawsuits in the past few years from former NFL players that are suffering lingering effects from concussions and other severe injuries from their playing days. The idea Gooddell mentioned was originally proposed by Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, who was the head coach at Rutgers University in 2010 when a player named Eric LeGrand was paralyzed attempting to make a block on a kickoff return. It is understandable why both parties here are sour on the idea of kickoffs. Schiano saw a horrific end to the playing career of a young man and Goodell is eager to increase player safety as kickoffs are thought to be the most dangerous plays in the course of a football game.
So let’s get down to the actual structure of the idea that would replace kickoffs in an NFL game. To start off a game or after a scoring play, the receiving team would start at their own 30 yard line with a 4th and 15 situation in which they could choose to go for it or punt the ball away. If that team went for it and fell short of gaining 15 yards, the opposing team would gain possession with stellar field position. The proposal is vague enough not to specify whether the opposing team would be allowed to make a punt block attempt, which wouldn’t seem fair to me. It also fails to see that a punt return could be just as violent and dangerous as a kickoff return, since overgrown men running at full speed at each other is a recipe for serious injury no matter what way you slice it.
This isn’t the first time the NFL has changed the kickoff rules in an attempt to make the game safer, starting last season, the NFL passed a rule that moved kickoffs from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line, significantly cutting down on the amount of kickoffs returned. Touchbacks and kicks that boomed out of the reach of return men increased dramatically. The argument in favor of this rule change is that it has greatly increased player safety, while the argument against it is that it has diminished the role of players whose only job is to go out their and return kickoffs, taking away one of the games most electrifying and exciting plays. Many NFL return specialists such as Chicago Bears WR Devin Hester were staunchly opposed to this rule change.
It makes sense that these sort of rule changes and proposed kickoff eliminations would be met with great opposition, some players only get the chance to see the field and prove their worth on kickoff returns. In essence it is taking away these players jobs, countless valuable NFL players have gained at least a roster spot if not a significant role on teams based purely on their successful contributions on special teams.
In my estimation this rule change would dramatically degrade the quality of the game we all love. I understand the pressing issue of players safety, but I worry that Goodell is just using kickoffs as a scapegoat in a game of various violent plays. Ask any NFL quarterback how hard it is to convert a 4th and 15 situation. Many of them never get the chance because their head coach would simply rather go the safe route and punt the ball away.
It just simply doesn’t seem fair to eliminate such an integral part of the game for safety purposes, football is a violent game and the players know that when they sign up to play pop warner before they even hit middle school competition levels. Playing the game of football is knowing that you are at risk for serious injury on any given play, you can take a certain play out of a game; but you will never be able eliminate the violent nature of the game itself.
There are also many teams that rely on special teams play to balance out deficiencies they may have on offense or defense, a kickoff return for a touchdown is a great equalizer which takes little time off the clock. Take the play of New York Giants Rookie RB David Wilson against the Saints this past weekend. Wilson became the first player in NFL history to have more than 200 return yards and 100 yards rushing in a single game. Are you telling me we can’t make the game safer while still experiencing those breathtaking plays by dynamic athletes? There has got to be a better way to improve player safety without throwing kickoffs under the bus.
I’m taking a very large grain of salt with the fact that Greg Schiano is the one proposing this rule as well. I understand Schiano has an axe to grind because of what he witnessed in the case of Eric LeGrand. It really is a tragic incident. However, this is the man that ordered that his players dive at the knees of New York Giants players while they were taking a knee at the end of their Week 2 matchup. For that fact alone I have a hard time believing he is firmly committed to player safety.
As I mentioned earlier I am all for the commissioner making the game safer for players, but I just hope he isn’t proposing these rule changes as a way to avoid legal issues and revenue lost due to law suits. I would rather Goodell and the competition committee go to the drawing board this offseason and think of more creative ways to make the game safer without taking away the livelihood of certain NFL players who only get the chance to see the field and earn playing time through special teams play.