The NFL continues to solve the so-called “most dangerous play in the game” by trying to have it happen less often.
From moving the kickoff point back to the 35 from the 30 to moving the possession point after a touchback from the 20 to the 25 to triggering a touchback the moment a kickoff touches a single blade of grass in the end zone to now allowing a fair catch inside the 25 to be placed at the 25, the NFL has made the kickoff return safer by reducing the number of kickoff returns.
It’s like telling someone who juggles live grenades, “You know, that’s pretty dangerous. Instead of doing it once per week, maybe you should do it once per month.”
None of this makes any sense. Especially when considering more of the details regarding the latest rule change.
Per a league source with knowledge of the situation, the decision to table the fair-catch rule in March was followed by an agreement to have a gathering of special-teams coaches at the offices of NFL Films in New Jersey, with the goal of brainstorming ideas for making the kickoff safer in lieu of another rule change that would simply lead to fewer kickoff returns, in theory. And a meeting, we’re told, did happen.
At the meeting, multiple options were given to the league (which was primarily represented by league executives Troy Vincent and Jeff Miller) that were believed to be superior to the fair-catch proposal that became an official rule this week. The coaches also explained the problems that the fair-catch proposal will cause, and they pointed out that the league’s injury data is flawed.
But there was a problem. Per the source, NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay didn’t attend the meeting. That’s an issue because, as the source also explained it, the rulemaking function has evolved to the point where it’s basically Commissioner Roger Goodell and McKay setting the agenda and calling the shots.
With kickoffs, there’s a lingering liability concern. If/when a player suffers a serious injury during the play the NFL has flagged as the most dangerous in the game, the fear is that the player will sue everyone.
Here’s the question. Would any such lawsuit have a real chance at prevailing? For starters, the CBA would limit the player’s case against the league or the team to arbitration, eliminating the possibility of a runaway jury verdict in a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction. Also, who at this point can say they don’t know the risks of playing football and aren’t assuming the full slate of potentially bad outcomes when signing up to play?
Although the “if you don’t like it, don’t play” argument gets thrown around far too recklessly by fans and media, this is one of the only occasions where it’s more than fair to say, “If you’re not prepared to assume the risks of playing football, football might not be for you.”
And if the goal is to make the most dangerous play in football safer, embrace the opportunity to make it safer. Rule changes aimed at reducing the chances of a worst-case scenario don’t really help anyone.
Indeed, if there ever is a serious injury and a lawsuit, a good lawyer will argue that the league ignored opportunities to make the play safer, opting instead to simply decrease the number of chances for a serious injury during an unsafe play to happen.
Ultimately, this is a non-solution to a non-problem. And it could invite other potential problems, especially as special-teams coordinators brainstorm ideas for making the powers-that-be regret making this latest change.
And they already are.