Pro football is starting to resemble that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail’’ when King Arthur chops off one piece of The Black Knight after another. Each time he loses a limb he says, "Just a flesh wound,’’ until he is left limbless on the ground.
The NFL has already legislated the head out of pro football and now it is threatening to cut the foot off, too. If the suits that run the league these days from lawyers’ offices instead of huddles indeed eliminate the kickoff because of its potentially concussive consequences, as they are threatening to do, what’s left beside the arm?
Pass defense has been all but outlawed in the NFL, too, turning what was once a great game into little more than an exercise of pitch-and-catch. Now they want to eliminate game-breaking players like Devin Hester, Billy “White Shoes’’ Johnson and “The Human Joystick,” Dante Hall, too. If you take the foot out of football what do you have left? Soccer?
Green Bay Packers' President Mark Murphy, a member of the competition committee and once a concussion delivering safety himself, said last week that statistics compiled by the NFL established that kickoffs are five times more likely than other plays to produce concussions. Not even placing the ball at the 25-yard line after touchbacks, a move designed to dissuade teams from returning kickoffs out of the end zone, has changed those numbers.
Over the past decade, the NFL also moved the spot of kickoffs up five yards and reduced the distance behind the line of scrimmage from which kicking team members could get a running start in an effort to slow down the speed of the collisions during the play. But nothing could change the reality of what the kickoff is, which is to say a high-speed chase resulting in head-on collisions.
Murphy claimed that even though the rule changes reduced the overall number of kickoff returns in the NFL, “it has not really done anything to make the play safer.” Maybe that’s because the play, and playing football, isn’t safe. Frankly, that’s always been part of its appeal.
Protecting players should be of paramount importance to both people who run the NFL and the fans who watch. But the dirty little truth is that it is a dangerous endeavor second only to boxing. In large measure, it’s why people watch, and it’s why players play. And if one takes too much of the violence out it’s roller derby with a ball flying through the air.
Ever since the dawn of the concussion crisis, pro football has sought ways to reduce injuries and hence its long-term liability for player injuries. While noble in theory, there are only so many changes you can make before you’ve fundamentally changed your sport to the point where it’s no longer your sport.
Eliminating plays like the ones Hester and Johnson so often made is that kind of change.
Desmond Howard would not be a Super Bowl MVP if there had been no kickoffs the day he terrorized the New England Patriots for 244 return yards in Super Bowl XXXI, including a back-breaking kickoff return for a late touchdown. Does football really want to give up those kind of plays? The ones like Gale Sayers used to make when he would wind his way through a field full of tacklers on one of his snake-like kick returns?
The NFL is preparing to convene a group of head coaches and special-teams coaches with the mandate to “make changes” that create a safer kickoff play or, in Murphy’s words, the league is “going to do away with it.”
“It’s that serious,” Murphy said. “It’s by far the most dangerous play in the game.”
Murphy is probably right about that, but, again, the whole game is dangerous. There’s no real way around that if you’re still going to be playing football. Of course, if they decide you can’t use your foot in football any more you won’t really be playing football, will you?
You also won’t have playing football exciting performers like Cordarrelle Patterson, who has five career kickoff returns for touchdowns and is a human highlight film in waiting every time he gets his hands on a kickoff. After he heard about the proposed change, Patterson said on Sirius Radio, “They’re trying to No. 1, I guess it’s a safety reason or whatever they’re saying. But it’s fun, man.
“For a lot of guys, it’s the only job we have, you know, is special teams. If you take kickoff returns out of the game, you’re going to take from a lot of people’s plate. So I don’t think they should do that. It’s real fun. Everybody enjoys it, and I just think they should keep it there.”
Notice that Patterson didn’t deny it was dangerous. What he suggested was he and his fellow special-teams players accept that danger in exchange for the thrill of what a kickoff return can become. If you take more and more of those plays away you’ll have a safer game ... but will you still have football?
If the sport is too dangerous to have your head involved in it and too dangerous to kick the ball to an opponent down the field then maybe it isn’t the kickoff that should be eliminated. Maybe it’s the game itself?