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Reduce kickoffs, but don't eliminate them entirely

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell discussed the idea of eliminating the kickoff this week and it was met negatively by many fans I speak with.

Fans appreciate the league's desire to make the game safer, but they clearly don't want radical changes to the game they love. Eliminating the kickoff is too big of a reaction to new safety measures.

People who don't want any changes are going to lose out on this one because safety trumps tradition sooner or later. Here's my idea for meeting on a middle ground on the subject of the kickoff.

First, a little recent history of the play before and after the 2011 decision to move the kickoff up to the 35-yard line in order to reduce the kickoff returns. In 2009 and 2010 when the kickoffs were from the 30-yard line the league averaged 2,016 kickoff returns. In 2011 with the kickoff moved up 5 yards the returns dropped to 1,375.

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That decision reduced returns by 32 percent and theoretically reduced the risk of injury. What else did the 2011 decision do to the game? In 2009-10 there were just over 45,000 kick return yards per year, which are exciting yards to watch. Also, and even more exciting, in those two years the league averaged 55 kick returns a year over 50 yards. No one will argue that those plays are very exciting. In 2011 with returns down 32 percent, return yardage was naturally down 13,000 yards as well as 50-plus yard returns were down to 41.

Basically the new rule took one big return a week off the schedule.

As it relates to onside kicks things really didn't change that much with the new rule. In 2010 under the old rules there were 59 onside kicks and nine were recovered by the kicking team. In 2011 there were 59 onside kicks with 11 recovered by the kicking team.

In my attempt to meet this issue in the middle here's my proposal: Keep the kick return to start the game, the second half and the overtime period. That would reduce the kickoff down to 512 to start games and the second half. After all other scores the team scheduled to receive the kick would get the ball on the 20-yard line and begin play. That would reduce the kickoffs by 75 percent from the pre-2011 era. Figure there will be about 20 overtime games a season, which would add 20 more returns added to the 512 and it's still 74 percent less than pre-2011and 62 percent less than the new rule.

The two kickoffs per game still gives the returning team two chances for a big return or a surprise onside kick. To address the onside kick each team gets one onside kick opportunity a game that they can choose to use instead of placing the ball on 20-yard line. Ninety percent of onside kicks are not surprise onside kickoffs. Both teams know it's coming and put the appropriate "hands" people on the field.

Finally, there's no reason to totally change the game and take the exciting players like Josh Cribbs, Devin Hester, Leon Washington and others out of the game. The excitement of the opening kickoff is worth keeping the play but reducing the frequency of the play with scoring up is a concern that this plan addresses.

Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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