NFL crowdsources improving the punt at “First and Future” event


The NFL wants to make punts safer. How to do it? A Shark Tank-style event where creative fans pitch their ideas to improve the game, and a panel of judges decides which pitch they like best.

That’s what happened today on the campus of Georgia Tech, where a panel of judges that included Falcons coach Dan Quinn heard from data analysts about proposals that might reduce the number and severity of collisions on punts. The event, called “First and Future,” is part of an NFL initiative to crowdsource ideas to improve the game.

The two winners of the competition were Halla Yang and Alex Wainger, both of whom proposed rules that would result in more fair catches. Yang suggested incentivizing more fair catches by giving the receiving team five yards after a fair catch, rather than spotting the ball at the spot of the fair catch, while Wainger suggested eliminating the rule that kicking team players cannot go more than a yard past the line of scrimmage before the ball is punted, which he said would result in better punt coverage and therefore more fair catches.

The problem, of course, is that the fair catch is not a particularly exciting play, and more fair catches may result in more fan complaints that the league is taking player safety concerns to such an extreme that the game is losing some of its excitement.

Still, NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay, who attended the event along with Commissioner Roger Goodell, said he thinks there’s promise in some of the proposals to improve punts, and he sees similarities with recent changes to kickoffs that the league has called successful.

“The changes we made gave us the outcomes we thought they would,” McKay said of the success of kickoff rules changes. Punt changes may be next.