Lost in the tsunami of hype and hoopla that is the National Football League draft was word that the league is convening a summit next week to discuss the future of one of the game’s most exciting and violent plays—the kickoff. The play will still exist in games this fall, but its long-term future is in serious doubt. Kickoffs soon may be going the way of leather football helmets.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is gathering a panel of special teams’ coaches and former players—including the greatest kickoff coverman of them all, Steve Tasker—in New York to tackle the issue. Though nothing definitive is expected to come from this meeting, it could be the prelude to the elimination of a play that results in plenty of highlights, high-speed collisions and serious injuries. As ESPN recently reported, concussions are five times more likely to occur on kickoffs than on other plays.
Thanks to the pioneering work of crusading neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, exhaustive investigative reporting by the media, and a billion-dollar lawsuit by the players association, the league has finally stopped denying the scientific connection between repeated head-blows and brain damage, and is taking steps to make the game safer.
Rules have been tweaked to reduce the number of returns and thus minimize the chance for injuries. Last season, only 40 percent of kickoffs were returned, continuing a downward trend.
“If they can find something they like, that will help because it is a violent play in the game,” Tasker, a CBS football television analyst, recently told the Buffalo News. “It’s become part of our vernacular, let’s kick things off. … But I think its days are numbered. I think they’re going to come up with an alternative to the kickoff.”
What that will be is anyone’s guess, but the writing’s on the wall, and soon will be in the rule book, too. Special teams will become a little less special.
There is a larger issue at play here, and it speaks to the future not only of kickoffs, but of the game of football. Eliminating kickoffs would make the game safer, but the reality is there’s only so much more you can do before you change the very nature of the sport, and it goes from being tackle to touch. Whether fans and media want to admit it, collisions continue to a big part of football’s appeal. Will people buy into a drastic transformation of the game? I’m thinking not.
The 2017 NFL season saw 291 diagnosed concussions and the scary spinal injury Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered. But those scary numbers and the sight of Shazier attempting to learn how to walk again aren’t enough to prompt many players from jumping on the kickoff-bandwagon. Matthew Slater of the New England Patriots is opposed to its elimination. Admittedly he’s not an unbiased observer. In fact, he’s made a good living covering kicks, tying Tasker’s special teams’ record of seven Pro Bowl appearances.
Still, Slater raises some interesting points. He recently told reporters it would be “tragic” to banish kickoffs because they are part of the “fabric of the game.” And he worries about the slippery slope that’s created when fundamental parts of a sport are erased.
“It really makes me ask the question, ‘Where do you go from here?’ ’’ he said. “What would happen next? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know. But I look at a number of plays. I look at the goal-line stand. I look at third-and-one. Think about the collisions that are happening there.
“Those may be deemed unsafe by some people, so if you make a drastic change such as this, what’s next? What happens? This is a contact sport. This is a violent sport. All of us that are playing the game understand that there are inherent risks that come along with playing the game. If you’re not OK with those risks, I respect that, and maybe you should think about doing something else.”
Next week’s summit could determine that football no longer will get its kicks from kickoffs.
A statistic that might be of interest only to me: According to Baseball-Reference.com, Mickey Mantle made $1.1 million during his 18-year Major League playing career. The New York Yankee slugger’s 1952 Topps baseball card recently sold for $2.8 million.
Speaking of stats, it never ceases to amaze how quickly organizations like the Elias Sports Bureau can come up with mind-boggling numbers. Like this one: The 21-pitch at-bat by San Francisco Giants outfielder Brandon Belt the other day was the longest in baseball history. Or at least since baseball started keeping numbers on such things.
Yes, having three home games this December could be a big advantage for the Bills if they are in contention, but it’s likely negated by a brutal opening schedule that will see them play five of their first seven on the road. I’d rather have more balance in my schedule.
The upcoming Kentucky Derby became a little duller when Gronkowski the horse had to withdraw the other day because of a slight infection. It would have been fun watching the human Gronk—Patriots thoroughbred tight end Rob Gronkowski—at Churchill Downs a week from Saturday downing mint juleps and rooting for the underdog horse bearing his surname. Heck, if the horse won, the human Gronk might have celebrated by spiking the jockey. The human Gronk announced Tuesday he isn’t putting his football career out to pasture. A career in the WWE will have to wait.
Best-selling author and nationally recognized journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.