Making Football's Most Dangerous Play Safer

NFL owners passed two new rules, including one that will further discourage kickoff returns, over the heavy protests of coaches and players.

David Richard / Reuters

The kickoff is both one of the most exciting and most dangerous plays in football. Several times in the course of a game, players line up, hurl themselves downfield as fast they can, and then collide with other players. Kickoffs result in the highest number of injuries and, according to the NFL, injuries and concussions during kickoffs actually rose last year, despite rule changes in previous years.

On Wednesday, NFL team owners, wary of the league’s image crisis about player safety, voted to change a rule that would discourage teams from running the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs. The new rule, which will be tested out for the 2016 season, gives the receiving team the ball at the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line on a touchback.

Back in 2011, as some were proposing banning kickoffs altogether, the league moved the kickoff up to the 35-yard line from the 30-yard line to ensure that more kicks would end up in the end zone. While touchbacks did increase, kick returners were still tempted to take the ball out.

“I feel like we get past the 20-yard line no matter what,” Leon Washington, one of the league’s premiere kickoff returners in 2011, said at the time. “We’re going to do business as usual.”

Rather than make it more difficult to return a kick, which is what the 2011 rules did, this new experimental rule incentivizes the receiving team by offering them another five yards. As Barry Petchesky of Deadspin noted, the average kickoff return is about 23 yards.

Nevertheless, players and coaches were vehemently opposed to the rule change, which alters a fundamental play of the game. Following the announced change, for example, the Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh suggested he might instruct his kicker to aim the kick higher and shorter in order to hem the receiving team in.

We’re going to look at it in a way that we may kick it off at the goal line as high as we can and get the return team at the 12, 15-yard line. It’s going to be really hard for us to say, hey we’re going to surrender the 25-yard line as a kickoff coverage team. That’s really not in the spirit of competition and what we’re trying to accomplish here.

In another controversial rule change, players will now be ejected after receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The 15-yard penalties are generally seen as pretty severe on their own, however, the change is meant to dissuade players from taunting and allowing post-play skirmishes to escalate. Following this rule change, a few coaches and players expressed fears that players might try to bait other players in order to draw penalties and ejections.

“You can cheap-shot guys now to get them to retaliate,” the Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “So now I got one on you in the first half. I'm damn sure going after you in the second half.”

Echoing that sentiment was Richard Sherman, Seattle’s ever-outspoken cornerback. Sherman took direct aim at the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in his remarks on the new rule:

I think it’s foolish. But it sounds like something somebody who’s never played the game would say, something that they would suggest, because he doesn’t understand. He’s just a face. He’s just a suit. He’s never stepped foot on the field and understood how you can get a personal foul.