A Full Circle in Half Steps

In 1994 the NFL thought itself too boring. Excitement was the name of the game as it pertained to making changes, so they instituted some new rules… limiting defensive backs in their efforts to slow receivers, limiting defensive players to certain forms of tackling… basically, handicapping the defense’s ability to play defense at all. More offense!

One more rule change from that year… in a nod to the increasing leg strength of its kickers, they moved the kickoff back from the 35 yard line to the 30. More returns!

Fast forward to 2011, and the NFL thinks itself too dangerous. “Player safety” is the name of the game as it pertains to making changes. And so you have the basically untouchable QB, the receivers who have to be tackled in a one-by-one foot area of their midsection (with head up!), and now, thanks to some pretty harrowing special teams injuries, you have the kickoff moved back to the 35 yard line, just as things were almost two decades ago. Progress!

When the new rule was first proposed, a touchback would have brought the ball out to the 25 yard line. Special teams’ coaches league-wide salivated at the idea of instructing their kicker to pop the ball up into the air so it didn’t reach the goal line, and sending their players marauding towards the unlucky returner into collisions that would have been far worse than what we’ve seen for the last 17 years, sure they could stop the returner short of the 25 yard line. Sounds safe!

Luckily for the ill-thinking rule-makers, someone mentioned it to them, and they quickly agreed, and moved the touchback to the 20 yard line again, the whole setup just like it was in 1994. Time warp!

In essence, the league has decided to remove the kickoff return from the game. Oh sure, they’ll still lineup and kick it, and we’ll still have to suffer commercials before and after the kick, but for all intents and purposes, after a score, the opposing team will get the ball at their own 20 yard line. Sounds an awful lot like touch/flag football to me. But what do I know!

My suggestion, stop insulting our intelligence (hmmm… do I tell the joke here about the average football fan and the Wunderlich? I think not, I’m thinking it might steadfastly oppose the point I’m about to make, in fact). Do away with the kickoff altogether. I know, it’s radical, but let’s say 75% of them end up as touchbacks, and the other 25%, considering the kicking team has a five-yard head-start on kicking teams of the last 17 years, are going to find their returners paying with rivers of broken bones and heaps of medical bills. The ever-elusive return will become so rare as to not be worth it – yes, it will be more exciting when it happens, but as improbable as an offensive lineman scoring or a returned field goal attempt for a TD… i.e., not worth planning for.

So scrap it. Save us the commercials, save us the whole charade, the going-through-the-motions of the whole thing.

The big problem with this, of course, is the onside kick. What would happen to it, “the most exciting play in football”? Well, when you need an onside kick, you just announce “we’re doing an onside kick”. It’s not like the other team doesn’t know when it’s coming anyway. It would still look, and play out, much like any onside kick we’ve seen since the beginning of football. Most of the time the returning team would recover, but a few times the kicking team would recover. Same as it ever was. Of course, the en vogue “surprise onside” would be lost, but it’s gonna be lost anyway. Think about it… with a touchback the predominant result of a return, special teams coaches will move more players to the front of the line to guard against the surprise onside, since they’re free(er) of their blocking duties. And they have less field to cover, what with the pushed-up kickoff spot, so they’ll be less spaced out anyway. The “surprise onside” is going the way of the run-n-shoot, or the dodo.

Or, instead of all that shit, they could just leave it at the 30 yard line and let them play, but you know, that might be just me. I’m guessing it’ll be back there in 17 years anyway.

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