Opening kickoffs in the NFL have become part of the pregame ceremony. The players are introduced, the anthem is played and a kicker launches the ball through the end zone. It’s a less expensive version of the flyover, with a $100 ball replacing a billion-dollar jet.
The moment is quaint, hearkening to a time when the receiving team — stay with me here, this actually happened — would catch the kickoff and run forward with it. These were called kickoff returns, and they were so exciting and violent that the NFL should be commended for deemphasizing them in favor of player health.
As the league searches for ways to maintain its enduring popularity, here’s a new suggestion regarding kickers: Ban them. Or at least make them matter less.
Football has been inherently illogical for too long. Between offensive players, defensive players and the special teamers who do the hard work, about 40 players risk their necks, spines, brains and knees smashing into other large, fast humans for 60 minutes. Then a guy who grew up playing soccer trots onto the field for his 15 seconds of fame and decides who wins and loses, who gets fired and who gets enshrined.
It makes no sense. Cody Parkey became the next Steve Bartman in Chicago when his field goal was deflected and missed Sunday, costing the Bears a playoff victory. Why should he have the power to decide a playoff game? It’s like playing hacky sack to decide a baseball game.
(Note: Playing hacky sack to decide a baseball game would be fine if it keeps a game under four hours.)
Modern analytics show that NFL coaches should use punters less than they do, but a punter at least serves an obvious strategic purpose. Coaches should go for first downs more often near midfield; a punter always will be required to extricate a team from deep in its own territory.
Kickers exist mostly so coaches will have someone to blame when they lose a close game.
Field goals possess a certain beauty — sports fans love few things more than a ball in flight — but what do they have to do with football, other than the illogical name of the game?
How many field goals rank among the greatest plays in NFL history? Even Adam Vinatieri’s Super Bowl-winning kicks were exclamation points punctuating sentences written by Tom Brady.
The Vikings lost a playoff game to Seattle because Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt. Remember? Two very good teams risked frostbite as well as the usual NFL injuries. The Seahawks took the lead late, the Vikings executed a brilliant drive and then Walsh jogged onto the field and determined that the Seahawks had won. Might as well just have left it to Judge Judy.
Now, banning kickers is probably going too far. And the last-second field goal when an offense has no chance to reach the end zone makes some sense, both in terms of strategy and entertainment.
Let’s follow the logical path that the NFL has begun carving. They have made the kickoff largely ceremonial. They have presented the option of the two-point conversion. They know that plays from scrimmage are better than kicks.
Here’s a way to continue down this path: Reduce the value of field goals to one point.
If field goals were worth only one point, NFL coaches would increasingly push for touchdowns. They would go for it on fourth down much more often, adding drama and real football plays to the game.
Who would you rather see on the field on a fourth-and-1 from the opponent’s 30 — Dan Bailey or Adam Thielen?
You’d see more Hail Marys, more creative attempts to score like the play that produced a victory for the Dolphins over the Patriots last month.
If the score was tied near the end of the game, the offense would still try to set up the last-second game-winning kick, but the strategy of settling for field goals would become less popular.
Yes, kickers are people, too. They’re just not football players.