Football’s evolving facelift continues.
In the continuing effort to make an inherently violent game incrementally safer, on Friday the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Committee approved a rule change wherein any fair catch signal for a kickoff that lands inside the 25-yard line will be treated as a touchback, with the receiving team beginning its possession on the 25-yard line. The rule change begins immediately in the 2018 season.
The ruling adds yet another layer to the pursuit of curtailing head injuries in the college game, a mission that began in earnest a decade ago when the much-maligned targeting rule was introduced. It’s difficult to criticize efforts to make the game safer, particularly with the ugly reality of the long-term effects from football-related head injuries grow more scientifically reliable every year. Participation numbers at the youth level are dwindling at an alarming rate, with some states like Illinois passing laws preventing children from playing full-contact football.
Still, this kickoff fair catch rule is silly. Just get rid of kickoffs altogether.
A disproportionate number of football injuries occur on kickoffs, but data generally is split on whether corrective measures attempted in recent years have had any meaningful impact. In 2011 the NFL moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 in hopes of generating more touchbacks. The league double-downed on that approach by moving the touchback starting point from the 20-yard line to the 25 in 2016. Yet according to numbers released by the NFL following the 2016 season, concussions on kickoffs dropped from 20 in 2015 to only 17 in 2016, while torn ACLs and MCLs on kickoffs actually increased.
Perhaps more pertinent to the Colorado Buffaloes and NCAA football, an experiment conducted by the Ivy League (of course) beginning with the 2016 season proved more revealing. That season the league was granted permission to move kickoffs to the 40-yard line after discovering that 23.4 percent of the league’s concussions occurred on kickoff plays, which accounted for only 5.8 percent of the overall action. The Ivy League went from averaging six concussions per season (over the previous three seasons) on kickoffs to zero in 2016.
Part of the reasoning behind the new rule has been the advent of pop-up kickoffs, when teams try to kick high and short in order to pin the opposition inside the 25-yard line. Coaches are masters of working the rules to the benefit of their teams, and that will hold true under the new legislation. Instead of that kickoff specialist designated to boot the ball through the end zone, we’ll instead soon see the advent of the pooch-kickoff specialist, featuring kickers adept at skimming kickoffs along the surface in attempts to, again, pin the opposition inside the 25-yard line.
No doubt, few plays in football are more exciting than a kickoff return taken all the way for a touchdown. Yet in 2017, Pac-12 Conference schools combined for only one kickoff return touchdown in 448 attempts. The Buffs have scored a touchdown on a conventional kickoff return just once over the past eight seasons (Marques Mosley in 2012; Nelson Spruce also was credited with a kickoff return TD in 2013 against Cal when he surprised the Bears by taking back an onside kick). For a sport also dealing with pace-of-game issues, perhaps the only thing more boring and time consuming than watching a parade of kickoffs sail out of the end zone will be to watch a barrage of fair catches.
Keep in mind, fair catches and touchbacks don’t erase all of the inherent risks on kickoffs. Coverage teams still bear down full-throttle on blockers forced to do their jobs until the whistle blows. The constant tweaking of kickoff rules has succeeded only in addressing the symptoms of a dangerous play. They don’t create a cure.
The risk-reward remains out of whack on kickoffs, even with the new fair catch rule. Football isn’t baseball, which basically has played by the same rules for 125 years. Football rules are altered routinely. It shouldn’t go overlooked that networks routinely squeeze commercial breaks on either side of kickoffs, a ploy that would be more difficult to pull off if the play was eliminated. But does anyone doubt for a second the networks can easily find ways to make up for those missed spots elsewhere in four-hour broadcasts?
Want to get serious about limiting the injury risk on kickoffs? Just get rid of them already.