Statistically speaking, the kickoff is the most dangerous part of an NFL game, resulting in more injuries than any other play. So it’s understandable that team owners would attempt to make kickoff returns safer, especially in light of the ongoing concussion scandal. But the league’s latest attempt to do so leaves a lot to be desired for fans, players and coaches alike.
For the 2016 season, touchbacks will result in the ball being placed on the 25-yard line rather than the 20. By giving offenses an extra five yards the owners who approved the rule are hoping to lessen the number of kickoff returns in favor of touchbacks. Or to put it another way, they’re incentivizing their own players not to play the game.
Despite their inherent danger (or more likely because of it), kickoff returns are arguably one of the most exciting parts of the game. When executed properly, they allow teams to make huge gains in yardage or even score a touchdown in a fraction of the time it would normally take. Kickoff returns have the power to dramatically alter the course of a game, reversing a team’s fortunes in a matter of seconds. So it’s understandable why the NFL’s attempt to minimize kickoff return attempts might not sit well with many fans.
Not to mention the apprehension on the part of coaches and players. Not only does reducing the number of kickoff returns fundamentally alter the game, some fear the new rule may actually backfire, resulting in more attempted returns.
While the receiving team now has more incentive to take a touchback, the kicking team now has much less incentive to allow them. A kicker who might normally aim for the back of the end zone might now be instructed to aim for the five or ten yard line, forcing the opponent to attempt a return rather than handing them a quarter of the field on a single play.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize the rule change, especially when you’re not required to offer up a feasible alternative. The owners have the near impossible task of making an inherently dangerous game safer without also making it less exciting to watch. And while the new touchback rule might not be perfect, fans of the game should hope that it works. After all, if it fails, and another alternative can not be found, we could someday see kickoff returns completely eliminated from the game.