After two seasons and only 17 games played, Detroit Lion Zack Follett has been released and will likely be out of the NFL for good. Follett has been a fan favorite ever since he was drafted in 2009. From his hard-hitting youtube reel to his supermarket antics, it was hard not to root for the guy. Unfortunately, Follett has become one of the many victims in the NFL that have had their careers cut short due to special teams. Before Follett, there was Eagles returner Ellis Hobbs. Before Hobbs, there was Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. Injuries have varied from sore necks, to paralysis, to even death. NFL rulemakers have toyed with the rules for awhile trying to protect the players. In fact, this year will feature a couple differences from years past. Kickoffs will be pushed forward to the 35 yard line from the 30, and players from the kicking team will only be able to get a 5-yard running start, where they got a 10-15 yard head start previously. While this is an important step in the right direction, it is the equivalent of putting a bandaid on a spinal-cord injury. The NFL needs to get serious about solving this problem. They need to get rid of the kickoff.
Now I know saying something that drastic will inevitably evoke an emotionally-strong response from many. A major change to the game of football will take a lot of thought and discussion before it is seriously considered. Although I consider myself a football purist in many ways and have fought against many rule changes that I deemed too drastic (ie: certain roughing the passer penalties asking way too much from defenders), I have always been weary of the brutality of the kickoff. Give it real thought. Pretend that teams must start at the 25-yard line at the beginning of every half and after an opponent score (punts can stay). How much worse would the game of football be? Different? Yes. Worse. Not significantly enough.
There are, no doubt, downfalls to getting rid of the kickoff. We will lose what some people consider the most exciting play in football: a kickoff return touchdown. Without the kickoff, there is no “Music City Miracle”. No “The Play”. A world where the occasional trombonist isn’t trampled by a giddy cornerback-turned-returner is a scary one indeed. But think about the actual concept of the kickoff play. For six or seven plays a game, coaches trot out their third and fourth string linebackers and fullbacks, tells them to run at each other full speed, so that they can determine field position, which typically is somewhere between their own 20 and 30 yard line. It seems a little archaic, doesn’t it? Get all of the meager athletes together to do the dirty work, so the real players can be safe to play when it matters. Players with less talent have been unfairly subjected to dangerous plays so that once in every six games, we get to see a kick return touchdown.
The biggest unintended consequence of abolishing the kickoff is the loss of the onside kick. This, admittedly, is a tough thing to accept. Many games that were once considered a close game, would be out of reach for the losing team. This would, undoubtedly, make a significant percentage of games less entertaining. My retort? Tough. A team that truly deserves to be in a game can do so without the luxury of the onside kick. Losing the onside kick will be a tough pill to swallow, but given the rarity of the onside kick (in 2009, an expected onside kick was performed every 6.4 games*) and the success rate of the onside kick (around 20% when expecting an onside kick) the actual outcome of games will rarely be altered.
The new rules this year are no doubt steps in the right direction, but they will not likely end the problem. I understand that violence and injuries are an unavoidable part of the sport. However, kickoffs are especially dangerous and often an insignificant play. The elimination of the kickoff would have a minor impact on the sport, but it would save the careers of hard-working players like Follett and it would save the lives of those who weren’t as lucky as him.
*2010 data not available; source: http://www.silive.com/jets/index.ssf/2010/09/the_onside_kick_jets_special_teams_coach_westhoff_says_its_about_the_guts_to_try_it.html