Will the NFL's new rules save the kickoff from extinction? The league sure hopes so.
To most of the football-watching public, not much is different about kickoffs during this NFL preseason. The play still looks fundamentally the same, as kickers launch footballs toward distant goal lines, and would-be tacklers race down the field with varying degrees of abandon in search of speedy returners.
But to a small group of the most interested observers, including NFL rulemakers and special teams coaches, kickoffs are different this summer. Those rulemakers and many of those coaches collaborated this past offseason to design a new set of rules for this NFL season intended to make the play safer and, if all goes as planned, prevent the sport's leaders from considering the elimination of the kickoff in the not-very-distant future.
They see different blocking. They see smaller and more agile players on the field.
They hope they see the salvation of the kickoff.
Are they right? Will the NFL's last, best attempt to make the kickoff less hazardous for players and save it from extinction work? The answers will come only after the 2018 season is played and the injury data is analyzed, and members of the NFL's competition committee and other league officials begin to determine the next steps.
For now, those involved in the process say they've done their best, and they're optimistic their efforts will produce positive player-safety results.
"From a fan's standpoint, you don't see a lot different," Washington Redskins special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica said this week. "But when you watch the tape and study what's going on, you can see it's a safer play in the way you have to block and the body types that are out there on the field."
Kotwica was among the special teams coaches who participated in an NFL player-safety summit in May at the league's offices in New York. The coaches, after being apprised of just how much peril the kickoff is in, made a series of safety-related suggestions that ended up forming the basis of the new rules, which were formally proposed by the competition committee and ratified by the owners later that month.
Under the new rules, five players on the kicking team must line up on each side of the kicker. They must line up within one yard of the 35-yard line, meaning that they no longer can get a running start. Eight of the 11 players on the receiving team must line up between 10 and 25 yards from the spot of the kickoff. The new rules establish a 15-yard no-blocking zone between the two teams until the ball is touched or hits the ground following the kick, and they eliminate all forms of "wedge" blocking (in which multiple blockers set up shoulder-to-shoulder).
The idea is to eliminate the most vicious head-on collisions between prospective tacklers - who had reached high speeds after their running start - and blockers or ball carriers. The goal is for blockers to be forced to turn and run down the field alongside defenders. Another objective is for teams to feel compelled to use swifter, typically smaller players.
"We're hopeful that we've created more of a space play, more of a punt play," Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, said during training camp.
A quarter of the way into the NFL preseason, not everyone is convinced.
"I don't see as much difference as everybody else sees," said Brian Mitchell, the former standout returner for the Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants.
Mitchell, speaking as he watched a joint practice between the Redskins and New York Jets this week in Richmond, Virginia, said he thinks the new rules are "better" and will serve to "get smaller guys on the team." He said he has no problem with the elimination of all wedge blocking. But tacklers still will have plenty of time and space to pick up speed before downfield impacts, he said. And blocking generally didn't take place, anyway, in what's now designated as the no-blocking zone, according to Mitchell.
"They claim it's making it safer," he said. "They've already affected the kickoff return for the last four or five years, but concussions have steadily gone up. So if you've taken it out of the game and concussions are going up, they're not coming from kickoff returns, are they? They're coming from offense and defense.
"That's that smokescreen the NFL throws out to make you think they're changing the game, when in essence . . . they haven't changed where it happens. . . .
"They throw a lot of stuff out there and they confuse people. People say, 'Oh, they're trying to change.' They haven't made the game safer. In my eyes, they've made the game more dangerous because they've confused more people."
All of that, Mitchell said, actually will serve to keep kickoffs in the game.
"If the kickoff return is gone in four to five years, then the NFL is going to be closer to being gone," Mitchell said. "People are going to see that they've still got concussions if they get rid of that [kickoffs]. So if you get rid of it and the concussions are still going, then all these years of politicking they've done will be shown as a lie."
The NFL's decision-makers take a far different view. They say the changes to the kickoff are necessary to address what they call the sport's most dangerous play. League representatives said in May that there were 71 concussions suffered by players on kickoffs over the past three seasons and that players are five times more likely to suffer a concussion on a kickoff than on a play from the line of scrimmage.
Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy said at the May safety meeting that the kickoff is "part of the fabric of the game" but added that "when you're staring at injury data, you've got to do something." Murphy said then that he was "cautiously optimistic" about the new rules but that the kickoff was on "a pretty short leash" and immediate results are needed.
Previous NFL efforts to make kickoffs safer in recent years focused on attempting to reduce the portion of kicks that were returned. The spot of the kickoff was moved closer to the opposite goal line to help kickers reach the end zone. Touchbacks on kickoffs were moved from the 20- to the 25-yard line to encourage returners to stay put on kicks into the end zone.
That resulted in some teams utilizing high, short kicks to try to keep the receiving team from reaching the 25-yard line on its return. In this case, the NFL is making a broader attempt to make kickoffs safer by addressing the play itself. League leaders tried to figure out in advance whether they were leaving any room for teams to exploit the new rules for competitive advantage.
Kotwica said he doesn't believe that teams will exploit these rules. But they are still figuring out how to best function within the new rules, he said.
"I think what you saw from a lot of teams was that they're still experimenting, trying different things," Kotwica said this week. "Teams are still trying to figure out what they're going to see and how they're going to play it."
This article was written by Mark Maske, a reporter for The Washington Post.