Posted: Tuesday June 7, 2011 11:45AM ; Updated: Tuesday June 7, 2011 12:19PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Abolishing kickoffs would lead to safer, more interesting games

Story Highlights

When you think about it, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano's proposal makes sense

Players have grown too big, strong, fast; something has to change to better safety

In addition to protecting players, game would be better test of actual football skill

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Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has proposed a plan to abolish kickoffs, including the onside kick, which Schiano considers the most dangerous play in football.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has proposed a plan to abolish kickoffs, including the onside kick, which Schiano considers the most dangerous play in football.
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI

He wants to get rid of what?

That's a perfectly acceptable gut response to Rutgers coach Greg Schiano's plan to eliminate kickoffs. I thought the same thing when I saw the headline on Steve Politi's Sunday column in the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger about the idea Schiano floated last month to his fellow Big East coaches. After all, the play -- or at least the word that describes it -- has transcended the game and become an acceptable synonym for "start time" in any context. It is woven into the fabric of our sporting culture.

But listen to Schiano for a minute. Hear his reasons for wanting to eliminate one of the most dangerous plays in his sport. Then think hard about his alternative. Teams can punt from the 30-yard line to open halves and after scoring, or, if they want to maintain possession, they could opt to run a fourth-and-15 play from the 30.

It sounds so strange. It sounds so sacrilegious. It sounds so ... so ... awesome.

Schiano isn't sure exactly when the idea dawned on him, but it came sometime last season. Maybe it came during one of Schiano's late-night trips home from Hackensack University Medical Center, or maybe it came when he sat in the hospital room of Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. LeGrand broke his C3 and C4 vertebrae making a tackle on a kickoff on Oct. 16 against Army and is paralyzed below the neck.

"In the last 20 years, the size, the speed and the power of the players has grown so fast," Schiano told SI.com on Monday. "The equipment and the bone structure haven't changed very much. Something is going to give, right?"

We've reached the point in the game's evolution where something must change. Players have grown too big, too strong and too fast to play by rules conceived decades ago for smaller, weaker, slower players. The kickoff, Schiano reasoned, is the most obvious place to adjust. Take away the kicker and two men who hang back in case of a jailbreak, and eight players get a 30-to-50-yard head of steam before they hit anyone. If they dip their heads as LeGrand did, they might never walk again.

Schiano's idea will meet major resistance because most people are fundamentally opposed to change in the games they love, and because most of the attempts at rules to enhance safety have made the game wimpier. Helmets occasionally will collide during a tackle, but now that collision almost always draws a fine in the NFL whether the tackler attempted to spear the ballcarrier or the headgear-knocking was inadvertent. Quarterbacks have been deemed virtually untouchable. That seems to violate the 14th Amendment, but the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the other 21 positions' equal protection argument.

When I forwarded Politi's column for discussion on Twitter on Monday, plenty of Internet tough guys countered with the "Quit crying, it's a violent game" argument. Those people probably wouldn't know a thigh pad from a Thighmaster. More than 100 years ago, president Teddy Roosevelt thought college football had grown too dangerous. While some wanted to ban the game, Roosevelt saw the value in a slightly-less-violent contact sport. So he called a summit of representatives from the football-playing schools and forced them to create rules to make the game safer. They banned the "flying wedge" and forced offenses to spread players across the line of scrimmage. They also legalized the forward pass, which probably brought howls from the purists.

With apologies to Roosevelt, Schiano's idea doesn't mollycoddle anyone. Quite the contrary. Of the recent rash of attempts to make football safer, Schiano's idea may be the first conceived with safety in mind that could make the game more interesting and make it more of a test of actual football skill.

We'll get to the most fascinating prong of the proposal -- replacing onside kicks with an offensive play -- later. For now, we'll focus on the longer kicks. Replacing kickoffs with punts would make the game more interesting, or at least as interesting as currently constituted. Since the NCAA moved the kickoff back to the 30-yard line in 2007, teams have kicked off 32,936 times. Of those kickoffs, 281 were returned for touchdowns. During that same span, teams have punted 28,857 times. Of those punts, 279 were returned for touchdowns. A kickoff went to the house one out of every 117 times, while a punt went to the house one out of every 103 times. The kicking style more likely to be returned for a touchdown is the more exciting one.

Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand (center) was paralyzed making a tackle on a kickoff against Army on Oct. 16.
Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand (center) was paralyzed making a tackle on a kickoff against Army last October.
AP

Kickoff lovers will argue that kickoffs are more action-packed because more kickoffs get returned. They are returned more. Since 2007, 78.9 percent of kickoffs were returned. Meanwhile, 38.9 percent of punts were returned. But the key to the injury prevention is reducing the full-head-of-steam collisions, so the reduction in returns is half the point. Also, on the punts that are returned, blockers from the return team shadow would-be tacklers from the line of scrimmage. No one gets a 50-yard sprint before he plows into someone else.

The kickoff lovers also probably won't consider the potentially wild field-position swings that could come from punts out of bounds. Even Intergalactic Pigskin Overlord/private equity firm intern Zoltan Mesko, a great directional punter at Michigan who now plays for the New England Patriots, would struggle to consistently pin opponents deep with unreturnable kicks at that distance. Punts from a team's own 30 typically get returned, or the receiving team gets great field position from a kick out of bounds.

And what if the punt gets blocked? If your team just gave up a touchdown, it's OK. Play a little Beamerball, block the punt and take over inside your opponent's 15-yard line. That's not exciting? (It turns out Schiano might not be completely altruistic here; Rutgers is third in the FBS with 48 blocked punts since 2002.)

Most exciting is Schiano's idea to replace the onside kick with one make-or-break down with 15 yards to go from the 30-yard line. By doing this, Schiano aims to replace a dangerous play that relies on a kicker and luck with one that tests a team's from-scrimmage skill. Schiano despises the onside kick, and he said he's not alone among coaches. That particular play has grown so violent that it is a paralyzing injury waiting to happen. "The most dangerous play to me is the onside kick," Schiano said. "It always has been. ... And it's getting worse and worse. What the kickoff team is doing on those onsides, the first wave of guys is just taking out people, and the second wave is getting the ball. That play scares the heck out of me."

Worse, players put themselves in more danger than usual over a play that usually comes down to luck. Kickers spend time each week perfecting their onside technique, but unlike quarterbacks, who will always throw a spiral if they practice enough, no one can accurately bounce an oblong ball across a (mostly) flat surface. A kicker may be able to consistently generate a "hop" that allows for a 50/50 ball, but the ball will sometimes skip forward or sideways through no fault of the kicker. It's physics. So a play that can determine a win or loss -- aside from being dangerous -- is almost as dependent on luck as it is on skill. What does that prove?

Why not run a play? Teams spend the bulk of the week practicing offensive and defensive plays. Why not allow the critical momentum swing to be determined by football players playing from-scrimmage football rather than by a kicker and an unpredictable bounce?

Who wouldn't want to see Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones and receiver Ryan Broyles, down a point to Texas in the Red River Rivalry, keep their comeback alive by hooking up for 17-yard gain on a skinny post? Who wouldn't love watching Oregon's Chip Kelly scheme the perfect play to get the ball to LaMichael James in space for his team's last shot at a comeback?

Schiano is the first to admit that his idea may need some tweaks. He isn't a statistician. He isn't sure fourth-and-15 is the best distance. Ideally, the rules committee would find a distance where the percentage of first-down plays equals the success rate on onside kicks. The beauty of the Schiano Plan? That success rate would go up or down based on the skill of the offense, not the bounce of the ball.

Schiano's idea would change a lot. It would alter recruiting. Punters would become more valuable. So would long snappers. With these rules, every program would have to keep at least two snappers on scholarship, because the punt will get blocked every time without a snapper who can fire the ball quickly and reliably. It would alter the way coaches value athletes. Straight-line fast track guys who excel on kickoff returns would fall in esteem compared to shifty water bugs who excel at punt returns.

Schiano's plan probably will never come to fruition, but maybe it will get people in the game thinking about real solutions for serious safety issues. Or maybe, just maybe, other coaches will take up Schiano's cause and help football evolve once again. The initial change would be jarring, but it wouldn't diminish the quality of the game. Strategically, Schiano's plan would make the game more fun for coaches and for fans. And if it kept even one player from spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair, then Schiano would deserve the credit for helping football kick off -- I mean, punt off -- a safer new era.

 
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