The latest effort to reduce kickoffs already is backfiring. Eventually, the NFL could do something that definitely would not result in more returns.
Commissioner Roger Goodell recently explained that the kickoff could still be removed from the game.
“We’ve made some very effective changes on the kickoff that have had a very significant impact reducing injuries,” Goodell told Mark Maske of the Washington Post. “It is still a play where we see a higher propensity for head injury. So we want to try to address that. We think there’s still further changes that we can make. We won’t take anything off the table, including the elimination [of it]. But we still think there are some changes that we can make that we’ll continue to see progress in that area.”
The 2016 change already has triggered more returns, and with coaches like Bill Belichick explaining (and demonstrating) the benefits of deliberately kicking the ball short and tackling the returner inside the 25, more kickoff returns likely are coming.
If/when the kickoff is eliminated, what will replace it? Per a source with knowledge of the internal deliberations within the league, the concern is simulating the onside kick, both when a team is trailing by more than one score late in a game and when a team would like to launch a surprise (like the Saints did in the second half of Super Bowl XLIV). For now, the only replacement that allows for both is the 4th-and-15 idea suggested by former Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano and floated by Goodell in a Time magazine profile several years ago.
When asked about alternatives to the kickoff, the 4th-and-15 scenario is the first, and only, proposal that currently is mentioned. And it makes plenty of sense. The kicking team could punt (simulating the kickoff), run a play from scrimmage (simulating the deliberate onside kick), or execute a fake punt (simulating the surprise onside kick).
A PFT poll posted in March found more disagreement than agreement with this possible replacement for the kickoff. If there’s another alternative that allows for all three, we’d love to know what it is. In part so that we could steal it and claim it as our own.