Kickoff change is more about avoiding catastrophic injuries than limiting concussions

Several years ago, the NFL publicly labeled the kickoff as the most dangerous play in the game. The league then embarked on an effort not to make the play safer, but to make it happen less frequently.

It worked. Too well.

As explained by Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay in a Thursday conference call regarding this year’s proposed rule changes, the 2010 season had 416 touchbacks on kickoffs, and 45,000 kick-return yards. In 2023, there were 1,970 touchbacks and only 13,000 kickoff-return yards.

In Super Bowl LVIII, all 13 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. As McKay pointed out, 12 of them landed beyond the end zone.

“We’ve taken too much out of the game,” McKay said. “It’s too exciting of a play.”

Now, the league is contemplating a dramatic about-face, with the kickoff going from being a meaningless play to the kickoff leading to a return almost every single time it happens. If the changes to the kickoff were fueled by an uptick in concussions, pumping hundreds of more live plays into the game over the course of a season will definitely result in more concussions.

That might seem confusing. The reality, however, is that it’s not about concussions. It’s about catastrophic injuries, like the one suffered in 2007 by former Bills tight end Kevin Everett and the one suffered in 2010 by former Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand.

The issue isn’t contact. It’s high-speed collisions. Two players run at each other. They reach maximum velocity. They instinctively dip their helmets just before impact. The forces congregate, potentially, in a player’s cervical spine. A bone possibly breaks, it possibly damages the spinal cord, and it possibly results in a serious injury, or worse.

That’s what the league is trying to avoid, more than anything else. Concussions are going to happen in football. Serious neck injuries are more likely to happen when two players are running toward each other at their top-end speeds and colliding while going in opposite directions. The physics of the collision result in enormous forces on potentially sensitive areas of the body.

Although the league rarely couches it in those terms, McKay alluded to the concern on Thursday.

“We have to reduce the space and speed that this play was, historically,” McKay said. “The space and speed created an injury factor that — it’s time for us to change that.”

Think about what it would mean for the league to have a Damar Hamlin-style situation that resulted not from a fluke blow to the chest but from a predictable blow to the head. The NFL weathered, for the most part, the storm of parents keeping their kids from playing football. If a player suffers permanent paralysis or death on the field due to a broken neck suffered in a high-speed collision during the kickoff, the supply of future pro football players could be choked off, instantly.

During his July 2022 deposition in the lawsuit over whether the NFL will be able to foist the cost of the concussion settlement onto its insurance companies, Commissioner Roger Goodell downplayed the link between kids not playing football and the eventually not having enough pro football players.

“I wasn’t as worried about the NFL game because very few kids that were playing youth football make it to the NFL,” Goodell said at page 271 of the transcript, a copy of which PFT has obtained. “I [sic] probably it’s less than one percent. So I don’t think that would impact us.”

I think it would. Some of those “less than one percent” who become highly-skilled football players could end up focusing on a different sport, if their parents yank them out of football if/when 20 million or more witness permanent paralysis or worse on the field during a game.

Regardless, that’s what the league is trying to avoid. If it was about limiting concussions, they’d just get rid of the kickoff and put the ball at the 25. This is a way to eliminate the risk of something far worse than a concussion.

And the good news is that the current proposal should do that, by packing most of the players together in a space where they won’t be able to reach the highest possible speed and collide while moving in opposite directions.

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