So indispensable for so long it became part of a nation’s vocabulary, football’s kickoff isn’t about beginnings anymore.
From preps to pros, the game’s guardians are asking themselves how they make such a tradition safer from collision and injury — particularly concussions — and still save a play that is alternately deemed football’s most dangerous and exciting.
This season, the NCAA and NFL each changed their rules in attempts to do just that. The Minnesota State High School League has modified kickoffs since 2014, and venerable Brainerd High School coach Ron Stolski says his sport has “never been safer.”
In the NCAA, receiving players can now create a touchback by fair-catching kickoffs inside their 25-yard line.
“I like the new rule,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “It protects our players. That’s the most important thing.”
Warned by its own executives that the kickoff otherwise is headed toward banishment, the NFL overhauled its rules to reduce violent contact created by opponents running full speed at each other. It eliminated the 5-yard running start kickoff teams had; required the receiving team to place eight players closer to the teed ball; and outlawed blocking before a kicked ball is touched or hits the ground. The ball also now is ruled dead if it reaches the end zone without a touch, a rule designed to end injuries on kicks that are never returned.
These changes and more came at a May summit of the league’s competition committee, some owners, coaches, former players and special-teams coordinators, including the Vikings’ Mike Priefer.
“We needed to change it,” Priefer said. “Ultimately, the NFL wants to make this a safer game.”
‘Pretty short leash’
Injury data motivated the league to examine again kickoffs, which Green Bay Packers president and competition-committee member Mark Murphy called “part of the fabric of the game” but also told reporters is on a “pretty short leash.”
That data showed players are five times more likely to suffer concussions on kickoffs than on plays from scrimmage. There were 71 kickoff concussions the past three seasons, despite rule changes intended to increase touchbacks and reduce returns. Those previous changes moved kickoffs from to the 30-yard line to the 35, and placed the ball after touchbacks on the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
And yet danger persisted, spurring the NFL do something to prevent the kickoff — and maybe even protect the league’s future — from extinction.
“When they say the kickoff return is more dangerous than any other play, of course we need to do something to change it,” Priefer said. “The changes we made, I don’t want to say they’re dramatic or drastic. They’re smart. They’re good changes for the game. They’re going to make it safer.”
New rules make kickoff coverage more like punt returns, which don’t have the same extent of vicious collisions. They also could lead coordinators to use more agile, smaller players in their kickoff coverage, which might reduce the most forceful hits.
End run on the rules
Rule changes don’t always yield the intended results. When touchbacks moved up to the 25 in 2016, New England and other inventive teams used high, directional kickoffs to pin opponents well inside that 25-yard line. On Monday, Seattle rookie punter Michael Dickson drop-kicked — rare, but legal — a high kickoff inside Chicago’s 5-yard line that the Bears returned to only their 15.
In the college game, North Texas on Saturday faked a fair catch. Its returner, Keegan Brewer, caught the ball at the 10 and stood still with it while four Arkansas players pulled up short of him before they turned toward their bench, believing the play was over. When they turned their backs, Brewer bolted down the sideline 90 yards for a touchdown.
Susceptible to getting clobbered while he stood still, Brewer instead gave his team a 14-0 lead on its way to a 44-17 victory.
“It could be bad,” Brewer told reporters. “Turned out to be good.”
One man’s opinion
NFL fans might not notice much of a difference, but count Priefer as one who predicts changes will make the game safer. His boss doesn’t agree.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer paused for more than a beat when asked if kickoffs now will be safer.
“I don’t think it will, but that’s just one man’s opinion,” Zimmer said. “The guys are still running back, guys are running forward and then they get back there and they’re hitting guys full speed. I don’t care if they start at the 34-yard line or the 30-yard line, they’re still running full speed. To me, it looks very similar to how it always has.”
In an August interview with the Washington Post, former record-setting returner Brian Mitchell called the NFL’s focus on kickoffs a “smoke screen” that feigns change but doesn’t address concussions in full.
“If the kickoff return is gone in four to five years, then the NFL is going to be closer to being gone,” Mitchell said. “People are going to see that they’ve still got concussions if they get rid of that [kickoffs]. So if you get rid of it and concussions are still going, then all of these years of politicking they’ve done will be shown as a lie.”
Football’s administrators from high school to the NFL have delivered loud and clear a message that more touchbacks and fewer returns are better.
In the NFL last season, kickoffs resulted in touchbacks nearly 58 percent of the time. When kickoffs were moved to 35-yard line in 2011, the percentage of touchbacks jumped from 16.7 percent to 44.5. Last season, the average return, including touchbacks, was 8.8 yards. A decade earlier, it was 22.1 yards.
“They’re doing everything in their power to make it not a play, but it’s such an exciting play,” said Terry Horan, the longtime coach at Division III Concordia-Moorhead.
While a dramatic kickoff return — an “electrifying play, a momentum changer,” Horan called it — remains a must-see play, returns for touchdowns are infrequent. His Concordia team had one last season. Many seasons it has none. In the NFL, only seven of the more than 1,000 returns last season went for touchdowns. That’s fewer than 1 percent.
Safety and strategy
Those who have spent their lives playing and coaching can’t envision football without the kickoff.
“It’s part of football strategy,” said Stolski, the Minnesota Football Coaches Association executive director who has coached 56 seasons, 43 of them in Brainerd. “You flip that coin: Do you want to receive? Where’s the wind coming from? Do you want to kick off to the other guy? If you took the kickoff away and just placed the ball at the 20 or 25 to start the game, it’d be disappointing.”
As longtime MSHSL associate director, Kevin Merkle attended national rules meetings for 17 years.
“I’d hate to see it taken out completely,” he said. “Football could be a safer game. Not a better game, but a safer game.”
For the next four-plus months, we’ll see if NFL and NCAA kickoff-return injuries decline. If injuries persist, kickoffs could get the boot, first in the NFL, then possibly next in college and high school in what Horan calls a “trickle-down effect.”
“I sure hope not,” Priefer said. “If it does, I hope I’m not coaching anymore. If you just spot the ball at the 25, it’s like a high school jamboree. It’s a scrimmage. This game has always started with a kickoff and a kickoff return ...
“If you don’t have it, it’s not football.”