Why football needs to abolish the kickoff

by Mack Alvino, Staff Writer

What is the most dangerous play in team sports? You probably won’t be surprised that it is a football play. What if I told you the most dangerous play in football is the only play in which there is no center. A kickoff, which occurs to start the half and after scoring plays , has proven to be the most lethal play in sports. 

According to the New York Times.In the Ivy League in 2017 a kickoff resulted in 10.93 concussions per 1000 plays. Following the 2017 season the Ivy League implemented a rule change to mimic the NFL, moving the ball from the 20 yard line after a touchback to the 25 yard line. This resulted in more players opting to take a knee in the endzone for a touchback to avoid running into the teeth of the defense. 

So far, the rule change has been effective, reducing concussions by 68.8% on kickoffs. Now for every 1000 kickoffs a player will suffer a concussion on 2.04 of those plays. My father was a legendary High School football player and I’ve grown up always loving the sport. But year after year my parents would refuse to let me play because of fear of concussions. But if you were to as Eric LeGrand and his family, this decision is well advised. The LeGrand families lives were forever changed by a seemingly innocent kickoff in a 2010 match between Rutgers and Army.

With 5:16 left in the fourth quarter in a game at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, Rutgers had just tied the game at 17 – 17. The play started with Rutgers kicking off before the ball was caught 3 yards in front of the endzone by Army player Malcom Brown. Brown began his return to the 25 yard line before colliding with LeGrand who had been charging down the field with his head down. Both players quickly fell to the turf. Brown was able to pop up and trot to the sideline with a broken collar bone, but LeGrand remained motionless on the field below. Everyone’s worst fears came true when LeGrand was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

Over the course of three seconds two players suffered life changing injuries. This is the reason that I find the current hanges to the rules inadequate. 

So, how do you replace the kickoff? Although kickoffs seldom carry any significance, a well timed return can drastically change a game. Some may suggest just going backyard style and give the ball to the team that got scored on, on their own 20 yard line. The sport requires some sort of a return opportunity to alter starting field position. Your typical 4th down punt checks all these boxes. 

Supporters of the kickoff would likely argue there is no way to replace the onside kick. The onside kick can’t just be pre-declared an onside kick like a two point conversion, because the surprise onside kick has a drastically higher conversion rate then when the receiving team is prepared to recover. So how do we set up a situation to accurately mimic the chances of a 75% conversion rate on a fake punt, rather than a 10% conversion rate on a straight up attempt. It needs to be a play that starts with a snap and switches possession of the ball and has the potential for a return. 

As I see it, there is one situation that fits all our boxes. To start a new half and after all scoring plays, the previously kicking team faces an automatic 4th and long from their own 35 yard line. This will make the most boring play in football, a touchback, basically obsolete. The opportunity to keep the ball is just as effective for a long 4th and long as an onside kick under the current rules.

The only remaining question is will coaches, players, and officials be willing to adopt these new rules. A close variation of my proposed rule was submitted by the Broncos in the 2019 off-season. The proposal passed in the NFL’s competition committee seven to one. The next step would be for at least 24 of the leagues 32 GM’s to vote in favor of the change. 

However, there are several variations between the official Broncos plan and the one I have outlined. The Broncos plan restricts the use of a 4th and 15 in place of an onside kick to only being applicable in the 4th quarter. Also, this special option could only be used once per game. The biggest difference is that the Bronco plan would not remove the rest of kickoffs from the NFL. Removing the kickoff is the soul purpose of my plan— hopefully if it were to be implemented, you would see such a decline in concussions that the Quarterback safety rules could be lightened to the relief of fans everywhere.