USA TODAY Sports
The NFL’s current strategy for dealing with the most dangerous play in the game is to come up with ways for the play to happen less often, and to twist as many arms as needed to push the changes through. That’s not a viable solution, and the man in charge of the NFL’s Competition Committee seems to know it.
In an interview last week with Bruce Murray and Rick Spielman of SiriusXM NFL Radio, Rich McKay admitted that, despite the latest effort to reduce total kickoff returns, the goal remains keeping the kickoff in the game — and having more kickoffs returned.
McKay pointed out that the new fair catch rule is a one-year experiment only, giving the league the opportunity to come up with something else. This glosses over the fact that coaches traveled to the NFL Films facility in New Jersey between the March and May ownership meetings, in order to brainstorm ideas for making the play safer. McKay did not attend that session, and at least one person in attendance got the distinct impression that there was little interest in doing anything other than implementing the new rule.
McKay acknowledged that the original tweak to the kickoff rule (moving the point of the kickoff from the 30 to the 35) was aimed simply at having more touchbacks and fewer returns.
“We did that with the idea of — it wasn’t rocket science — it was just let’s get fewer returns,” McKay said. “Let’s bring the injury rate down, the concussion rate down.”
That same mindset surely fueled the decision to move the touchback point from the 20 to the 25, further incentivizing taking a knee and not returning a kick that makes it to the end zone. And, obviously, the new rule that allows a fair catch of a kick in the field of play to be placed at the 25 creates another reason to opt not to attempt a return.
Although McKay didn’t put it this way, the new rule is a direct result of the unintended consequences of moving the touchback point to the 25. Teams deliberately decided to kick short of the goal line, forcing a return with the idea of tackling the player short of the 25. And teams, as McKay put it, got better at forcing more returns that way.
McKay said that, after some of the earlier changes were made, the concussion rate for kickoff plays became similar to the concussion rate for scrimmage plays.
So it worked. Until it didn’t. Supposedly.
“In the last couple years, it spiked up pretty noticeably,” McKay said. “The reason it spiked up is the kickers are getting better. The ball is now being hung in the corners at the three yard line, and it’s creating more returns, more collisions, and more concussions.”
This assumes the data is accurate. As previously reported, the league claims 19 concussions happened on kickoff returns in 2022. Only eight were obviously linked via visual evidence to kick returns.
“The data is pretty clear about it,” McKay nevertheless insisted. “In this instance, they kept giving us that data and saying something has got to change with respect to this play. . . . We just felt like from a data standpoint this is something we needed to do.”
Some believe the urgency is false, that it was exaggerated to justify a solution to a problem that really wasn’t a problem.
So what’s the motivation here? There seems to be an obsession for some in the overall pro football hierarchy with the potential for liability arising not from concussions but from a catastrophic injury that could happen when players run at each other at top speed and collide. Such an injury also would create a massive P.R. blow for the sport, especially if there’s another Damar Hamlin situation with a far different outcome.
For now, the league’s way to minimize the risk is to marginalize the play. We’ll see if they come up with a long-term solution that results in more kickoffs and kick returns, or whether the play eventually will go the way of the drop kick, the single wing, and the flying wedge.