With several hot-button issues on the docket for this week’s NFL Owner’s Meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., the NFL took pause to celebrate an issue they resolved in last year’s meetings: player safety on kickoffs.
Under the old rules, the defending team kicked the ball off from the 30-yard line, and defenders could run from as far back as the 15-yard line, building up a full head of steam before the ball was kicked off. On the receiving side of the ball, teams were permitted to block with a “wedge”: three players who could link arms in an ultimate game of Red Rover.
Although some of the most exciting plays in a football game, kickoffs were responsible for more concussions and brain trauma than any other play in football. In 2010 alone, there were 218 concussions in 321 preseason, regular season and postseason games.
The league addressed the issue with a threefold plan:
1. Move the kickoff up five yards to the 35-yard line.
2. Limit defender head starts to five yards behind the kickoff line.
3. Eliminate the three-man wedge in favor of two-man wedges, no linked arms.
And according to a comprehensive AP article on SI.com, it worked, with total concussions falling to 190 in 2011 (12.5 percent), with a more significant drop on kickoffs alone:
“The kickoff rule had an effect on the game,” said Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s competition committee. “There was a 40 percent reduction in concussions on that play.”
Which is a major accomplishment for a sport looking to provide exciting entertainment while still protecting its athletes. The only trade-off is that the overall value of a kick return specialist on the roster may be forever changed, and here’s why:
1. Total kick returns also dropped 53 percent in 2011. Different teams use different kickoff strategies (some kick it high and attempt to put the coverage in a position to make a stop inside the 20-yard line), but especially at critical junctures, teams are likely to tell their kicker to put it out of the back of the end zone. The coverage teams aren’t moving as fast at the point of contact, but they are five yards closer to the returner. Without wedges, the returner doesn’t get the type of blocking that they used to, leading to more open-field tackles.
2. Total kick returns for touchdowns dropped 61 percent in 2011. In 2010, the NFL had four preseason touchdowns, 23 regular season touchdowns, and even a postseason return for a touchdown. Returners like Brian Mitchell, Devin Hester, Dante Hall and Joshua Cribbs have made careers out of their return ability and nose for the end zone, and those opportunities are getting hammered.
3. Touchbacks increased 269 percent in 2011. In 2010, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff tied an NFL record in the last game of the season, booting a record 40 kicks into the end zone for no return. He was rewarded at the end of the season with a reported five year contract. In 2011, nine NFL kickers cracked the 40 club, with Panthers kicker Olindo Mare obliterating the record for 53, a full 63 percent of his kickoffs. Altogether, 10 kickers booted more than half of their kicks for touchbacks, up from one (Cundiff) in 2010. Quite simply, there were 416 kickoffs for touchbacks in 2010. There were 1,120 in 2011.
Let me lend perspective by saying that these numbers are a simple comparison between 2010 and 2011, and that the game will adapt to take advantage of some scheme or loophole. Any changes made to the rule book in the name of player safety are justified, and it’s very comforting to see concussions decrease.
But make no mistake: these kickoff stats are historically significant and change the complexion and strategy of the game. These numbers are known to head coaches and general managers, and will likely impact contract numbers and roster composition now and in the future.
In the battle for field position, the defense took a big step forward on kickoffs in 2011.