The May 2023 ownership meetings primarily will be known as the time the NFL gave a middle finger to in-stadium fans. They also will be known as the time the NFL delivered perhaps the final death blow to the kickoff.
It didn’t happen all at once. It came by a thousand cuts. Or at least a few.
The NFL decided more than a decade ago that the kickoff return is the most dangerous play in sports. So the NFL embarked, in many cases, not on making it safer but by eliminating the number of times it happens.
At one point, a comprehensive revision to pre-kick player placement was used in an effort to salvage the play. Efforts also have been made to make the onside kick both safer and, for the team that uses it, more likely to be successful.
The latest move, allowing the receiving team that fields the ball short of the goal line to execute a fair catch and take possession at the 25, becomes the next step in the process of reducing the number of total kickoff returns.
So when will kickoff returns happen? The fair catch isn’t mandatory; teams could still decide to return a ball kicked into the field of play. But why do it, when you can start the drive 100 out of 100 times at the 25?
Yes, there’s always a chance for a muff. But there’s also a chance that a muff or a fumble will happen if the player intends to field the back and return it.
Some think there will be more squib kicks or other creative approaches aimed at putting the ball between the goal line and the 25 and making a tackle before the player gets to the 25. That entails plenty of risk. A squib kick could go out of bounds. An unexpected bounce could throw off the timing of the coverage, opening an unexpected lane for the returner.
Chances are the kickoff will become even more perfunctory and pointless. Teams will be starting from the 25. So why not just put it on the 25 and be done with it?
That likely will happen, with the NFL landing that plane along with the adoption of the fourth and 20 alternative to the onside kick. Once there’s an acceptable replacement for the ability of the team that is trailing to retain possession, the kickoff will go the way of the dodo bird.
And there’s one last reason to ditch the kickoff. At some point, the return happens so infrequently that it becomes an enhanced safety risk for players who don’t have the experience with full-contact returns. Also, as teams opt for a fair catch inside the 25, kick-coverage units that might have the ability to make a tackle inside the 25 will lose some of that edge, since they won’t be using it as often as they once did.
Bottom line? This collection of partial measures is indirectly eliminating the kickoff return from the game. At some point, it makes more sense to just get rid of it.