|The Saints' Thomas Morstead led the NFL in touchbacks last season, with 68. (US Presswire)|
New York Giants' co-owner John Mara said the rule that last season moved kickoffs five yards forward was so effective in reducing concussions that he can envision the day when the play is eliminated altogether. I don't, and I'll tell you why: Because the league won't have to.
Its kickers might do the job for it.
Let me explain. One special-teams coordinator I contacted Monday said that with the NCAA now moving kickoffs forward five yards, the emphasis will be on booming the ball out of the end zone. Therefore, college football will be looking for kickers with stronger legs ... and stronger legs there mean stronger pro kickers, with stronger pro kickers producing more touchbacks.
More touchbacks, of course, mean fewer returns, and fewer returns mean fewer head injuries -- all of which should satisfy the NFL and its owners.
"It's going to get to the point where virtually every team will have someone like [Sebastian] Janikowski," one special-teams coach said, "which means someone who can knock the ball out of the end zone."
Janikowski is one of the NFL's strongest kickers, with seven field goals last season of 50 or more yards, but he's hardly its best at producing touchbacks. That distinction belongs to the Saints' Thomas Morstead, who had a league-high 68 touchbacks, followed by Carolina's Olindo Mare with 53 and the Packers' Mason Crosby with 48.
Janikowski was tied for 17th with 32.
But that's not the point. This is: Touchbacks were up -- way up -- with kickoff returns down to 53.5 percent, the lowest in league history. Coincidentally, concussions on kickoffs were down, too, with the league saying the numbers dropped off 40 percent -- which is why it passed the rule in the first place.
All of which is great, except this isn't only about touchbacks. This is about returns out of the end zone, too, and one of the league's top special-teams coaches supplied numbers that are more revealing. For instance: 33 percent of kickoff returns that last season started 1 yard deep in the end zone didn't reach the 20-yard line; 40 percent of returns that started 2-3 yards deep didn't make it; and 45 percent of returns 4-5 yards deep failed to make it.
In all, 43.9 percent of kickoffs that were returned from the end zone didn't reach the 20, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out where this is going.
"Why return a ball from the end zone," said one special-teams coach, "when you might not get it to the 20?"
Of course, the flip side is you might. In fact, you might go farther, much farther, which is another reason I don't see kickoffs getting legislated out of pro football. First of all, it's one of the most exciting plays in the game. Second, it's a chance to score with one touch of the football. Third, it would remove an element that has been critical to the outcomes of NFL games and seasons for decades (think "Music City Miracle" or Devin Hester, 2005).
Mara, who is a member of the league's competition committee, said there have been discussions about eliminating kickoffs, but that nothing will be done until the league is certain it has the right plan -- and, for now, it does not.
"There's no consensus on it right now," he told Giants.com, "but I could see the day in the future where that play could be taken out of the game. You see it evolving toward that."
I don't. I understand the league's emphasis on player safety, and I applaud it. But if you really want to get rid of concussions, turn the game into one of touch football, and that's not going to happen. Neither, I suggest, is the elimination of kickoffs, even though there were special-teams coaches who a year ago predicted the NFL would start pushing for it.
"This is all about money and lawsuits," one of them said, citing the wave of legal action stemming from head injuries and concussions.
I don't know about that. What I do know is that the rule worked. The NFL and its owners were appeased by a change that reduced the number of concussions, while coaches still could count on touchdown returns to win games.
Granted, the number of scores on kickoff returns dropped from 23 in 2010 to 10, with little more than one-half of all returns last season becoming touchdowns, but so what? It's still possible for a kickoff return to be a game-changing event, and that should satisfy coaches, players and fans -- just as strong-legged specialists who drive kickoffs into and beyond the end zone should satisfy the NFL and its safety-first approach.
Put them together, and you have a marriage that can and should last.