Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
Would we really miss kickoffs?
The National Football League has been furiously investigating ways to curtail the head-injury epidemic that has drastically lessened the quality of life for current and former players, and recently, Commissioner Roger Goodell proposed a pretty crazy suggestion. Making a mention in Time Magazine and reacting to data that shows an increased likelihood of head injuries on kickoffs, Goodell floated an idea that would replace kickoffs with a 4th-and-15 situation at the scoring team’s own 30, essentially trading more punts for kickoffs.
The idea originated with Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, who was coach at Rutgers when player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed on a kickoff. Data apparently shows that punts don’t create the same laboratory for full-speed collisions.
The initial reaction, of course, is to dismiss the idea as infringing on the fundamental elements of football. But it seems plausible that this is just the first step to ultimately implement changes to the NFL kickoff and maybe eliminate it altogether.
And if that happens, a trickle-down effect could permeate shortly thereafter. The NCAA has already adopted a shorter kickoff, put into effect by the NFL in 2011. It stands to reason the high-school game will someday be impacted, as well.
So many steps have been taken to increase player safety at the prep level, including better equipment, better technique and better awareness of concussion prevention. Would a dramatic change like the elimination of a kickoff go farther than necessary?
“Most coaches, I think, would say yes, and I guess I would too, but for all the complaining about the NFL, what choice do they have?” Mukwonago football coach Clay Iverson said. “I had this conversation with someone the other day that wanted the commissioner gone. My response was, ‘What is the new guy going to do?’ I think a fair comprise at the NFL level would be to punt the ball – less injuries.”
Iverson said he’s seeing a phasing out of tacklers leading with their head, “bull in the ring” drills and other facets of technique likely to cause injury. He does point out key areas where the subtraction of kickoffs would impact the varsity game.
“In recruiting, every school is looking for that kid that can put it in the end zone,” Iverson said. “Also, a lot of times at our level, it is a place that we can get a kid on the field in an important role. If kickoffs go away, we lose that.”
In the theoretical scenario presented by Goodell, teams likely wouldn’t want to give away their strategy on the 4th-and-15 play (substituting for a kickoff), leaving most of the same personnel on the field as any other offensive snap. That could mean several players who make the field on special teams won’t get the same chances. It also takes away an opportunity for some teams to cultivate an advantage, particularly if they have a speedy return man.
Aside from that, pretty much the loudest and most frequently-presented argument in favor of kickoffs falls something along the lines of: “that’s just the way it is with football.” It’s no longer sufficient, however, to simply say the sport is violent by nature and shouldn’t be altered to curb injuries, especially if something as uniquely dangerous as kickoffs can realistically be weeded out.
I think we can mostly acknowledge it’s one of football’s stranger (and perhaps endearing) elements that the game requires a kicking game at all. In a contest characterized by strength, size and speed, so many games come down to the skinny guy who plays a tiny percentage of snaps with the seemingly arbitrary skill of booting the ball through uprights. Yet, nobody is suggesting the elimination of special teams altogether – kickers would still be needed to kick field goals, and potentially punt as well.
Kickoff returns, I grant, do have the potential to add a very exciting element to the football experience. A punt from the 30 might have a different impact, positively or negatively, but teams will still need special teams systems, good returners, and guys with a strong leg. I just don’t think we’d miss kickoffs for long.
Take a look at the NFL. There are more touchbacks (and fewer injuries) than ever before because kickoffs have been moved closer to the end zone. Do you legitimately feel the product has suffered, and do you find the NFL less watchable because there are fewer kickoffs returned for significant yardage? Consider how even more rare they are in preps, where a ball simply breaking the plane of the end zone is a touchback. For a kicker with a strong leg, an opponent’s start at the 20-yard line might be a formality, anyway.
“I think there is always resistance to change, no matter what it is,” Iverson correctly noted. “My guess is Wisconsin will not be the first state to try this, which would be smart. If another state tries it, we can do some research on if it does prevent injury.”
We may be years away from seeing that happen, or it may never happen at all. But after coming to terms with the idea that the game may be slightly altered from the version we grew up watching, I think many would admit the game is better off as a result.
Pictured: Steve Drida of Waukesha West prepares for a kickoff in October (LCP photo by Scott Ash)