After the national anthem has been sung (hopefully without error), and the coin toss has been completed (hopefully without error), every football game starts the same way… with the kickoff! Fans cheer as the kicker’s foot powers through the ball, sending it into the air, and signifying the start of another contest. Recent reports have made this writer concerned the league is contemplating a change to what we all recognize as an intrical part of football, and eliminating the kickoff entirely from the game. Eliminating the kickoff would also get rid of one of my favorite plays, the onside kick! Teams attempting to get back into a game, use the onside kick to try and regain possession of the ball after a scoring play. Getting rid of the onside kick would make it much, much harder for a team trailing by more than a couple of scores to get back into a game.

I can understand the point of those who say kickoffs are an extraordinarily violent part of the game, and could cause injury to those who run down the field with reckless abandon. We all understand the league is attempting to reduce the number of concussions suffered by players, and it seems like the kickoff has been the target of this change. I’m glad the league did away with the wedge, which is where the most violent of collisions occurred during kickoffs in my opinion. As a member of the Rutgers University family, I understand all too well the chances of injury during such a play, and their severity. In 2010, Eric LeGrand, participating in a routine kick return, suffered a broken neck, which has left him paralyzed. Even though he’s been injured on such a play, LeGrand believes “kickoffs in the NFL should return to the way they used to be, because lots of football players can make a career out of playing on special teams…,” a point I’m sure players like Ray Lewis would agree with. Lewis may not be the player he is now if he wasn’t able to remain on the roster as a special-teamer.

If the unthinkable happens, and the league’s Competition Committee votes to do away with kickoffs all together, what will they replace it with? How will they determine where to spot the ball to begin the game, or after scoring plays? Former head football coach for Rutgers University& first-year head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Greg Schiano, has proposed an idea which I think is a little radical, and almost resembles the college overtime scenario. After a team scores, it would get the ball at its own 30-yard line and face the equivalent of a fourth and fifteen. The team with the ball would either attempt to convert, or punt the ball away. I’m not sure I want my football games to start (or end) this way. I applaud his ingenuity, but I’m not sure I could go along with it.

I don’t think we need to change one of the fundamentals of the game in order to play the game safer. I believe the answer to a safer kickoff is already a part of the game, and using this to replace kickoffs, instead of some wacky college-style technique would be more appealing to both players and fans. When the defensive team scores a safety, they’re awarded two points and the football. They receive the football via the free kick. Now a free kick resembles the kickoff in the way both sides line up, and all the same rules of the kickoff apply, the main difference being the ball is punted rather than placed on a tee and kicked. A kickoff is actually a form of free kick, just placed on a tee. On kickoffs, the kicking team gets a bit of a running start and can’t pass the line of scrimmage (where the ball is placed on the tee) until the kicker kicks it. During a free kick, those players don’t get the same running start, and can’t build up to the forty or so mile per hour speed some players can achieve during kickoffs. If this technique is used, the league can develop a rule where a team declares it wants to attempt an onside kick, and will at that point be allowed to kick from a tee. Maybe penalize a team that kicks the ball in the air too far off the tee, so teams don’t declare they want to onside kick, then boom it 40 or 50 yards.

I believe using the free kick after safety rule to replace the kickoff will be a safer, less violent play, while retaining some of the original intent of the kickoff. Kickers are kicking the ball farther than they ever have, and in my belief, don’t need to kick from a tee on kickoffs. When you watch kickoffs in the current NFL, most are going 5, 6, 7 yards into the endzone… and are still being run out, which defeats the purpose of moving the kickoff up in the first place! Will this be the perfect solution? Not for some; but it’s a more palatable idea than fourth and fifteen to start a game... wouldn’t you agree?

-Joseph Haas

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*** Original publishing date 12.7.2012 ***