CHICAGO — The kickoff, as we know it, is in its final days.
Since 2010, the NCAA has twice changed kickoff rules in an effort to improve player safety. The NFL has talked about some form of punting with a tighter space between teams as a replacement for the kickoff, which has been proven to be the most dangerous play in the game.
“I think we have to keep changing the kickoff,” Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith said during the Big Ten spring meetings. “With today’s kids, who are faster, stronger and more explosive, we’re taking a lot of risks for concussions and neck injuries.
“It’s something we have to look at every year. It’s one of the most dangerous plays.”
One year after the NFL banned wedge blocking on kickoffs because of safety concerns, the NCAA followed the lead in ’10 with a rule that says when the team receiving a kickoff has more than two players standing within two yards of one another, shoulder to shoulder, it will be assessed a 15-yard penalty — even if there is no contact between the teams.
This season, teams will kick off at the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Also, players on the kicking team can’t line up for the play behind the 30-yard line, which is intended to limit the running start kicking teams used to have during the play. Also, touchbacks on free kicks will be moved to the 25-yard line instead of the 20 to encourage more touchbacks.
The recommended changes came from the Football Rules Committee after that group examined NCAA data showing that injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game.
Not all Big Ten athletics directors want the kickoff eliminated.
Nebraska’s Tom Osborne sees the danger, but also said it would change the face of the game. It is, after all, the first play of every game. It sets field position and, in some cases, tone.
“If two teams have a good run at each other, no question, you’re going to have more concussions and more violent collisions, and so there may be some who want to eliminate the kickoff,” Osborne said. “Personally, I think that would be unfortunate. If you start at the 35- or 40-yard line, your chances of scoring about double over starting at your own 20.
“I think it’s an important part of the game. . . . Personally, I would hate to see the kickoff taken out of the game.”
Smith has a different perspective. From 1977 to 1981, Smith coached special teams at Notre Dame, his alma mater. He picked the “kamikazes,” a player whose job was to break through the “wedge.”
“I looked for the guys who could bust that wedge,” Smith said. “Now I look back at it and feel guilty. I think the kickoff is one of the most dangerous plays we have. We have to constantly look at how we can protect the kids.”
The 35-yard line rule is a significant change. When the NFL moved its kickoff point to the 35 last season, returns fell from 2,033 in 2010 to 1,375. In 2010, 80.1 percent of kickoffs were returned. Last year, the percentage of kickoffs returns was 53.5 percent, the lowest in NFL history. The average yards per kickoff return was 23.8, the highest in history (the previous high was 23.7 in 1962).
Touchbacks rose to 1,120 (43.6 percent) in 2011 from 416 (16.4 percent) the year before. The residual effect health-wise was a 40 percent drop in concussions, according to the NFL.
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta played quarterback for North Dakota State teams that won national titles in 1983, ’85 and ’86. Barta isn’t willing to go as far to say that kickoff is on death row, but he acknowledges the risk of the game and favors a safe approach on kickoffs.
“Football is a contact sport and there is inherent danger to that,” Barta said. “I know that, I played the game, I’ve had surgeries, I’ve had issues related to that. And yet, I smile and say it was one of the great periods of my life, it’s a great sport and I’m glad I played it.
“That being said, if there are things we can do to lessen the chance of a violent injury, then we need to do that.”
Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez won three Rose Bowls as the Badgers’ head coach. He made his football bones as a defensive coach, coaching linebackers at Iowa from 1979-86 and then moving to defensive coordinator at Notre Dame before accepting the UW job in 1990.
He pointed to the percentage of injuries on kickoffs and is open to anything. Of course, as a defensive coach, he’s good with touchbacks.
“The more touchbacks, the better, as far as I’m concerned,” Alvarez said.
So, here lie kickoffs. How much time does it have?
“That’s a very good question,” Smith said. “If it were up to me, it would be short lived.”