One of the utmost priorities of the National Football League should always be the safety of their players. Without them there is no product to be had and everything else goes by the wayside.
Applying that logic, it would make sense that this was the prevailing line of thinking as the NFL owners voted on Tuesday to enact a one-year trial to have any fair catch inside the 25-yard line on a kickoff produce the same result that a touchback would.
Now it is important to remember that as of this moment, it is not a permanent rule change, and it could quickly be whisked away after one season in similar fashion to the horrendous trial run for pass interference reviews that happened in the 2019 season.
However, given the trend that has occurred with kickoffs over time in the NFL, it's clear that it will never again be the explosive play the league sought to achieve when they made drastic changes to its format nearly 50 years ago.
In an attempt to generate more exciting plays, in 1974 the league moved the kickoff spot from the 40-yard line to the 35-yard line. Then 20 years later, in 1994, they moved it back even further to the 30-yard line, where it stayed for 17 seasons.
It’s no coincidence that each of the first nine players atop the all-time kickoff return yardage list all had their careers occur during this window between 1994 and 2011. Players like Dante Hall, Brian Mitchell, and Devin Hester delivered the splash play the NFL so desperately wanted to cultivate, albeit at great risk to the safety of the players involved in these plays.
The league released data that showed that 30 percent of torn ACL’s occurred on special teams plays, despite them only accounting for 17 percent of the total plays. On top of the issues caused with lower body injuries, there was also an exponentially greater risk of concussions occurring prior to the rule change that began with the 2011 season.
During that first year the new rule was put in place, the concussion rate dropped 40 percent. For a league that has to be hyperactive in protecting its players in both the long and short term, it was a necessary adjustment that needed to be made, even if it came at the cost of eliminating one of the most exciting plays in the sport.
The NFL only further incentivized teams from returning kicks by instituting a rule in 2016 that would place the ball at the 25-yard line following a touchback. The extra five yards of field position made it easy for teams to forego the risk that came with actively choosing to run kicks back.
All of this is reflected in the data that was tracked in the decade following the rule change that was implemented in 2011. The NFL saw its touchback rate jump 20 percent over a ten-year period, from 41 percent in 2011 all the way to 61 percent in 2020.
One of the few things keeping kick returns alive during this period was the kickers who either didn’t have the leg to get it in the end zone, or made a conscious decision to kick it short and allow the coverage team to make a play in the hopes of keeping the opposing team short of the 25-yard line.
With this new rule in effect during the 2023 season, the latter strategy is effectively useless as any player returning kicks now has the option to opt for the fair catch on a ball kicked short of the end zone, and net the same result they would on any other touchback.
There is just too much data out there that supports kickoffs being an unnecessary risk in a sport that is already filled with danger at every turn. Rather than continuing to water down a facet of the game that will never return to the level of excitement it once boasted, why not just sever ties with it all together?
What exactly is the point of keeping kickoffs as a glorified formality. Let’s stop beating around the bush and instead replace whatever it is that kickoffs have turned into by having every team start each possession at the 25-yard line. It seems we are heading that way regardless, might as well just dive in head first and embrace it.