By now, we've all heard that Greg Schiano supports the abolition of kickoffs. We've also heard cries that this would ruin the sport. I don't see that, and here's why.
Score. Commercial. Kickoff. Touchback. Commercial.
That sequence may be the most aggravating sequence in sports right now. Kickoffs haven't been exciting for a long time now, as touchback rates have increased and the elimination of the three-man wedge has helped coverage teams limit kick returners. Can you recall the last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored on a kickoff return? The Bucs have just four in their history, and the last one came against the Atlanta Falcons in 2010 during a crucial 21-27 loss.
Some people say that kickoffs are the most exciting part of football. I have no clue what kickoffs those people have been watching, because I sure haven't seen them. Through 13 weeks this season, the NFL has seen just 10 kickoff returns for touchdowns. Even when you're watching a big return, you'll frequently see it called back for some violation on the receiving team: holding, three-man wedge, block in the back -- we've all heard them.
You know what's more exciting? Going for it on fourth and 15. A punt, which can actually be blocked. A fake punt, going for a first down. We've seen 22 touchdowns on punts this season, eight through blocked punts and 14 through punt returns. That's not even counting the blocks that didn't result in a touchdown, nor the big returns. So are we really decreasing the excitement of an already exciting game when we eliminate one of its most boring plays and replace it with more exciting options?
That's what we see in Greg Schiano's proposal, which is to replace a kickoff with fourth-and-15 on their own 30-yard line. A team could then run any play they wanted to run: they could go for it, punt the ball, run a fake punt -- anything that's legal on a regular down would be legal.
Schiano's main impetus is player safety, understandable after he saw Eric LeGrand paralyzed from the neck down on a kickoff return in college. Lest we think this is about a single incident, he noted in a press conference yesterday that a massive 17% of catastrophic injuries occur on kickoffs, even though kickoffs only comprise 6% of all plays in a game. That suggests that a kickoff is over three times as dangerous as a regular play. To be fair, it's not clear what effect the recent rule-changes on kickoff have had on injuries, and the injury rate may have drastically decreased. Still, this makes sense: kickoffs are the only play in football where two groups of players run at each other, rather than with each other.
So what about onside kicks? Well, those aren't all that exciting to begin with, as they're recovered just 19.7% of the time since 2000 according to pro-football-reference. They're a largely random, desperation play. Amusingly, though, fourth-and-15 may be a little too far: they're converted 22.6% of the time overall. Add some fake punts, though, and the odds of recovering on offense suddenly grow.
Would eliminating kickoffs really be that bad? This isn't baseball: history isn't sacred, and the game has evolved and changed constantly. the NFL now looks nothing like the NFL fifty, thirty or even fifteen years ago. Eliminating kickoffs would just be the next step in that evolution: eliminating an odd play that bears little resemblance to the rest of the game, and is disproportionately dangerous to boot.