At 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, or at least within a few minutes thereafter, half the league will assume their respective positions in the new kickoff formation, as eight games begin nearly simultaneously. It could be the last first Sunday of the season that starts this way.
Per a source with knowledge of the internal conversations, the kickoff continues to be at risk of completely going away, even with radical changes aimed at reducing the number of high-impact collisions that happen when two players run at each other, unimpeded and with an opportunity to reach top speed.
Prior changes had successfully reduced the number of returned kickoffs. In 2003, 88.7 percent of all kickoffs were returned, according to NFL data. In 2011, the first year the kickoff point moved from the 30 back to the 35, the percentage of returned kicks fell from 80.1 percent to 53.5 percent. In 2017, the percentage of returned kickoffs had fallen 40.6 percent, well under half of the 15-year high-water mark of 2003.
Recent efforts to reduce the number of kickoffs have backfired, to a certain extent. When the touchback point moved from the 20 to the 25, kickoffs that went into the end zone fell from 2,193 in 2015 to 1,955 in 2016 and 1,878 in 2017. Kickoffs falling short of the end zone increased from 434 to 2015 to 677 in 2016 and 672 in 2017.
So instead of trying to further tinker with kickoff and touchback points to reduce the total number of kickoffs, the NFL finally has made dramatic changes to the formation, with the goal of reducing the number of concussions and, perhaps more importantly, the risk of a catastrophic head or neck injury when two large, fast bodies moving at full speed in opposite directions collide in a cacophony of Newtonian physics.
It’s still not clear how much safer the kickoff needs to be. Packers CEO Mark Murphy publicly has said that a player is five times more likely to suffer a concussion on a kickoff return than on a scrimmage play. Others within the league have cited a four-to-one ratio. No one, however, has been able to articulate an acceptable concussion rate for the revamped kickoff play.
The absence of a goal suggests that there’s no clear plan for what will happen beyond 2018. Maybe the new formation gets another year. Maybe more changes are made. Or maybe the kickoff goes away.
Regardless, as the kickoff as we’ve known it changes significantly in 2018, it could still go away entirely in 2019.