The beginning of the end: Kickoffs are on their way out of college football
The latest rule change spells doom for what some believe is the most exciting football play
This is only the beginning -- the beginning of the end of kickoffs.
At least that's the opinion of Texas coach Tom Herman after considering the biggest rule change for 2018.
And he is not alone.
"I have told our coaches, 'Before we retire … I firmly believe you're not going to see kickoffs,'" he said.
That prospect seems closer than ever before after the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel this week rubber-stamped a proposal. Beginning this fall, when a player fair catches a kickoff inside the 25-yard line, the result will be a touchback. The ball will be spotted at the 25.
The intent -- as usual -- is player safety. Studies have shown that the intensity of injuries are increased on kickoffs. This despite kickoffs making up only a small percentage of total plays in a college football game.
At issue is eliminating a component of football that is as old as the game itself. In 2012, the kickoff was moved from the 30 to the 35 to increase the likelihood of touchbacks. Touchbacks immediately increased by 50 percent, according to then-NCAA secretary rules editor Rogers Redding.
That same year, touchbacks were moved from the 20 to the 25. That supposedly gave returning teams more incentive to fair catch the ball. Spotting the ball 5 yards closer to the opposition's end zone mathematically increased the likelihood of scoring on a given drive.
How has that worked out?
"The data is convincing," said Bob Bowlsby, NCAA Football Oversight Committee chair. "The [injury] frequency isn't any higher. The severity is higher. There's the talk about [how] we used four-man wedges; we got rid of that. We used to have three-man wedges; we got rid of that. We still have two-man wedges. A lot of the challenge is, you've got a kicking team that's running full speed. You've got a receiving team that's trying to diffuse that."
Ever since former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano floated the idea of eliminating kickoffs seven years ago, the football world has reacted in varying degrees. There was the usual put-'em-in-skirts reaction from the Joe Six Pack fan who decried a reduction in physicality. There was reasoned thought as head trauma became an issue.
Boil it down: Not only are players safer without the collisions involved in a kickoff, legal liability is lessened. That will get the attention of the NCAA more than anything.
The association is still dealing with the impact of a landmark decision in the Adrian Arrington case. The NCAA eventually settled that contentious legal battle, throwing $70 million into a pot players could use for diagnosis (though not treatment) of head trauma. Protocol and return-to-play standards were also refined.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has a simple solution that seems to satisfy a lot of folks: move the kickoff up to the 40. That better assures a touchback.
"When you go back and kick the ball out of the end zone, nobody gets blocked," Saban said. "If a guy fair catches the ball, by the time he decides weather he's going to fair catch or not, they would have done most of the contract. I guess I would have chose a different way to do it."
Schiano first put the idea in everybody's head in 2011. That was after Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed during a kickoff against Army in 2010.
Schiano suggested the scoring team take over the ball on its 30 on a fourth-and-15 play. The team can either punt it away -- in lieu of a kickoff -- or go for it as a method of retaining possession (rather than attempt an onside kick like today). Statistics show that injuries on punts aren't as bad for as frequent as on kickoffs.
The idea gained traction. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell first suggested the idea of eliminating kickoffs in December 2012.
Now, we enter 2018 with essentially a 35-yard area in which to fair catch the ball on kickoffs.
"The hardest part for coaches to wrap their head around is the arbitrary yard line to put the ball on, especially if you have an elite returner or an elite guy who has that skill," Herman said.
"Maybe on average, when this guy returns a kick, your offense is starting on the 34-yard line. You're going to take that 9 yards away from that team [every time you fair catch]."
The rule change doesn't eliminate the onside kick but does impact the so-called "sky kick."
Saban is a fan of blooping the ball high and giving his kickoff coverage team enough time to pin down a returner.
With the enhanced touchback zone, "You still gotta go cover, because the guy could fumble," Saban said.
Remember, this may only be the beginning.
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