Hypocrisy, Safety and the Kickoff Rule Change

By Jason Lisk

The NFL actually makes a rule change designed to reduce the number of serious injuries, and all I read is whining from the same people who have been staunchly opposed to any increase in the number of games on the grounds of player safety. I’m beginning to think that the common thread is fear of change, and not concern about player safety at all.

You can’t complain about corruption and pork spending, but then vote for your local congressman because you like that local project. Tough choices have to be made. The NFL has always been, and will always be, about evolving and changing. It will not ultimately survive or thrive many years from now if it does not address with greater focus head injuries. If you really are for player safety, well, then why do you want that one extra kickoff a game at the expense of concussions?

I haven’t seen the internal data the NFL competition committee and owners reviewed before voting on this proposal. They tell us that injuries are higher on kickoffs. I know there is alot of distrust around the NFL right now, but this move runs counter to the natural order of changes by professional leagues, which is usually to promote scoring. This will deflate it some, because of decreases in field position after a touchdown, reduced number of fumbles on kickoffs creating short fields, and kickoff returns for touchdown. This certainly isn’t a popular choice being made to increase scoring and cater to the mob.

While I don’t have access to the NFL’s data, I did find this study on high school athletes, entitled “Effects of Time in Competition, Phase of Play, and Field Location on Injury Severity in High School Football” by Ellen E. Yard. Some of the lowlights as it relates to injuries for high school football players:

  • 32.7% of injuries on kickoffs and punts were “severe” (defined as 21 or more missed days), compared to 19.3% on other plays.
  • 20.3% of injuries on kickoffs and punts were concussions, compared to 10.9% on other plays.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how relevant those directional findings are to the NFL (which is saying, like that study, that serious injuries occur more frequently on kickoffs). I find it to be pretty self-evident that serious injury rates and concussions would be higher on plays where the acceleration portion of the Mass times Acceleration formula was greatly increased.

But Heaven Forbid that we have a few more touchbacks and a few less concussions. Will this solve the problem? Absolutely not. Is it a step? Yes. The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good. This does not preclude pursuing other safety measures and making other cost/benefit decisions for the overall health of the game’s future.

So how many touchbacks are we talking about anyway? I’ve seen plenty of hyperbole on this, so I went back and found as many kickers as I could who were kicking from 1992-1995, the two years before and after the change to 30 yards from the pre-existing 35 yard line for kickoffs. Here is a summary of their touchbacks before and after the rule change, sorted by touchback percentage before the change.

The average change was an 18.9% decrease with the move back 5 yards. You may notice that the top of the list saw larger dropoffs, and the effect was to bunch touchbacks up more tightly. This is why, contrary to some opinions out there, I think the kickoff specialist will still be employed. The larger increases in touchback rates will come to those few at the top who have the highest rates already. (Here’s a list from NFL.com of the touchback rates for 2010).

It’s not going suddenly turn kickers like Mason Crosby (less than 5% touchbacks in 2010) into touchback machines, as I don’t think he’ll get to 25%. If you look at the bottom of the list, at guys like Kevin Butler, I think you will see that veteran weak legged kickers are not likely to be worth it on kickoffs from the 35. If it takes a kick at the extreme far left tail of the spectrum to get you a touchback, a move of five yards isn’t going to jump your touchback rate all that much.

Overall, we are probably talking about one touchback per team per game. That’s 16 fewer returns per team over a season. That’s about 5-6 total return touchdowns over the course of the season’s 256 games. How many serious concussions, on the most dangerous play in the game, are 5-6 more exciting touchdowns worth so you can feel happy? I’ll try to quickly ballpark some numbers, based on knowing that 3.7 players were injured per team per week in 2010. I’ll show my work so you can plug in your own numbers.

Kickoffs make up more than 5% but less than 10% of a team’s plays, I’m going with 10% of injuries on kickoffs if they are a little more frequent on that play. That gets us 0.37 per team per week. Multiply that by 32 teams and 16 games, and that is 189 total injuries on kickoffs. But there not eliminating kickoffs, despite the hyperbole. Returns will drop by about 25%. That means about 45 injuries, of which some percentage are serious concussions and long term injuries.

It’s not going to solve the overall problem, just reduce it by a few sand pebbles at the expense of a some kickoffs. Is that worth it, to donate one kickoff a game? For me, yes, it’s a step. Every player safety advocate will have to answer that for themselves. But you have to make choices and give up something, and not just complain.

[photo via Getty]