The NFL has a problem. Well, the NFL has plenty of problems, most of which have no impact on the bottom line. This specific problem eventually could impact the bottom line, in a variety of ways.
The NFL knows the problem exists. Indeed, prominent NFL figures and league leaders routinely acknowledge it. But the solution to date has been a string of half measure that, in the case of the latest attempted fix, could make things worse instead of better.
“[T]he kickoff return remains the most dangerous play that we have in the game, has the highest rate of concussions,” Giants co-owner John Mara said, joining a chorus that has been singing the same tune for years now about how risky the kick return is.
It’s indeed the most dangerous play in the game, not just because of concussions but because of the potential consequences to the cervical when two players running full speed at each other instinctively dip their head immediately before impact. And yet instead of getting rid of it, the NFL is simply trying to minimize the number of times it happens.
From a numbers standpoint, the approach makes some sense. The fewer the kickoff returns, the lower the risk will be that someone will suffer the kind of injury that put former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
But the risk is still there. If the NFL eventually loses that numbers game, the rest of us won’t say, “We told you so.” We’ll say, “You told yourselves so.”
From a liability standpoint, it’s unclear how much risk the league would be facing, since any lawsuit arising from the worst-case outcome to the “most dangerous play” would be subject to the grievance procedures of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. From a P.R. and morality standpoint, however, how can the NFL continue to justify playing Russian roulette?
While there are far more empty chambers in this specific gun, there’s a bullet lurking in there somewhere, and the NFL knows it.
Reducing the number of kickoff returns doesn’t make the situation any better, especially since having fewer kickoff returns makes the players who are performing that play less prepared to do so. The problem becomes more pronounced if/when (when) a head coach decides not to activate a player who knows how to properly execute his assignment during a kickoff in favor of a player who fills a more important role, but who also will have to cover or block for kickoffs despite not being particularly suited for that task.
Then there’s the very real possibility that the experimental movement of the touchback point from the 20 to the 25, aimed at increasing touchbacks, will have the opposite effect, prompting teams to use squib, mortar, and/or moonshot kicks in an effort to pin the opponent inside the 25. If that happens, there will be more instances of the “most dangerous play,” not fewer.
So just get rid of it. The owners meet next month in Charlotte, at which time at least 24 of them can come together and agree that, instead of trying to minimize the number of times the “most dangerous play” occurs, they can just scrap it.
They collectively have the power to do it, and they individually will bear the responsibility to the next player who breaks his neck or worse while carrying out his assignment on the “most dangerous play” if they don’t.