On Roger Goodell's kickoff musings

December, 6, 2012
12/06/12
2:11
PM ET

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- So I got a pretty lively and thoughtful response Thursday morning after tweeting out the basics of a proposal to eliminate the kickoff from football, as suggested by commissioner Roger Goodell in this week's edition of TIME magazine. My strong sense is that, like it or not, we should prepare for the eventual implementation of some version of the proposal.

Once the NFL deems an issue a matter of "player safety," after all, it becomes a runaway train of sorts. A vote against it is a vote against player safety, and given the league's current state of litigation, that can't happen.

You brought up a number of objections and questions, and so I thought I would try to address them on this fine Thursday afternoon. I asked Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe about a number of them and also got some help from ESPN Stats & Information to help flesh things out.

First, the short version of the proposal: Kickoffs would be replaced by fourth and 15 at the scoring team's 30-yard line. You could either punt or "go for it" in a strategy that would roughly parallel onside kicks. You would have one play to gain 15 yards and retain possession.

@Blingris asked why the league is focusing on kickoffs and not punts.

Generally speaking, kickoffs are considered much more dangerous than punts because they expose players to potentially severe injuries. The idea was hatched by Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, who had a player -- Eric LeGrand -- paralyzed on a kickoff at Rutgers.

"It's the difference between two guys running next to each other and then stopping to block each other," Kluwe said, "and two people running straight at each other and smashing. … The injuries on kickoffs usually happen when the wedge guys hit the interior guys who are usually linemen or bigger dudes. You have 290 pound guys hitting another 290 pound guys [at full speed]."

@Timjob320 tweeted: "UGH. SERIOUSLY? Getting rid of kickoffs? Stupid idea. Football is not a safe sport. Get over it."

Sorry, Tim, the NFL has pretty much decided that kickoffs are uniquely dangerous even in the context of a violent sport. Based on what Kluwe said, it's a relatively accepted idea within the game.

"Eliminating kickoffs would definitely make the game safer," Kluwe said. "I really think the NFL will take the stance that it's not the overall amount of injuries, it's the severity of injuries. … They can't afford to open themselves up to future lawsuits."

@DetroitfaninWI brought up an excellent point: "What will they do to fix ticky tack pass interference calls on this play. illegal touching.5 yard penalty.automatic 1st down?"

It's a concern Kluwe voiced as well.

"If they're going to do this, they really have to codify pass interference," Kluwe said "As it is, there is so much pass interference called, and no one knows what pass interference is and isn't. If a team goes for it on fourth-and-15, all you have to do is have a receiver fall down and there you go."

I'm guessing that's an objection the NFL might not be able to accommodate, at least not right away. It might be worth seeing if it plays out that way first.

Finally, @Jason_Decker asked: "4th and 15 is much easier to convert than recovering an onsides kick?" And @hooshouse wondered: "Any chance you can get ESPN's stat guys to compare conversion rates of onside kicks vs 4th and 15 or comparable? I'm curious."

Why yes I can. Thomas McKean of ESPN Stats & Information found that teams have converted 19 percent of fourth downs of 15 yards or more this season (four of 21). By comparison, 13.3 percent of onside kicks have been recovered (six of 45). So based on that sample, at least, it might be a bit easier to convert than an onside kick.

The specifics of this particular proposal could always be tweaked, either by the competition committee or before a vote of owners. But Goodell is a calculating politician. I don't think he would have floated the general elimination of kickoffs if it isn't something he intends to pursue moving forward.

Related: Jeffri Chadiha's Hot Read on eliminating kickoffs.

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