Opinion

The N.F.L.’s New Kickoff Rule Is a Classically Terrible Idea

There is no English noun that adequately conveys what millions of fans experience on the eve of the pro football season. Only something like the ancient Greek concept of ataraxia — which literally means the absence of disturbance or trouble but connotes a kind of sublime contentedness — begins to approach our exquisite feeling of detachment from all worldly cares. The N.F.L. makes ataraxia available to each and every one of us three days a week, which should number high among the otherwise dubious achievements of late modernity.

This year, alas, my sense of tranquillity is being threatened by the N.F.L.’s decision to change the rules governing kickoffs. For the 2023 season, which begins on Thursday, any player on the receiving team will be allowed to signal for a “fair catch” from anywhere between the goal line and his 25-yard line, rather than having to field the ball and face the wrath of the 11 players on the other team converging on him like a phalanx of hoplites. After a fair catch, the ball will be placed on the 25-yard line (just as it would after a traditional “touchback” in the end zone).

If, poor creature, you don’t follow football, the important point is that the league is creating an incentive not to return the ball on kickoffs — the type of play reported to have a higher risk of concussions. This new rule, adopted in the name of player safety, is the latest and most drastic in a series of changes that the N.F.L. has made to the kickoff in recent years, in what seems to be a prelude to eliminating it altogether.

It’s a terrible idea. In addition to being widely unpopular with fans, players and coaches, the new rule is questionable in its efficacy, soulless in its corporate logic and a threat to the ethos of blue-collar toughness that once defined this great game. I fear the wrath of the football gods.

Like Gaul, football is divided into three parts: offense, defense and special teams. The kickoff belongs to the last of these phases, and in many ways it is the aspect of football that has changed the least since the game’s invention. Offenses have evolved in the past half century from lumbering ground operations that rewarded raw collective effort (“three yards and a cloud of dust”) to high-flying passing attacks that favor an elite handful of “skill” players. Defenses have done their best to adapt with a constantly changing set of sophisticated strategies. But kickoffs have largely remained the same, a preserve of old-fashioned hustle, an arena in which effort can matter more than God-given ability.

Apart from kick-return specialists — speedsters such as Ray-Ray McCloud of the San Francisco 49ers — special teams players are generally drawn from the second and third strings of active rosters, unheralded players just hoping to make the squad. They tend to be men like Grant Stuard, a linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts and the last player chosen in the 2021 N.F.L. draft. (This is presumably one reason the new fair-catch option was all but ignored during this year’s preseason exhibition games: Players looking to survive final roster cuts enthusiastically returned kicks in the hope of impressing their coaches with a big runback.)

A handful of players, such as Matthew Slater of the New England Patriots, have raised special teams play to a kind of art form. Slater, a once-obscure fifth-round draft pick out of U.C.L.A. who has never been a full-time player on offense or defense, regularly downs kicks deep in opponents’ territory, routinely makes difficult open-field tackles and has been selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times. That’s the kind of underdog story football still needs.

But kickoffs are not just about unsung work ethic. They have also produced many of the N.F.L.’s most exciting moments: the so-called Music City Miracle in 2000; Desmond Howard’s 99-yard touchdown return in Super Bowl XXXI, which helped earn him the honor of the game’s most valuable player; Gale Sayers, seemingly every time he touched the ball.

Getting rid of kickoffs also means sacrificing some of the science of the game. Special teams have long been a key component of strategy, especially for the game’s greatest coaches, such as Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots (who has been known to give impromptu lectures on the subject to bewildered journalists). The 2010 San Diego Chargers had arguably the best offense and the best defense in the league and a roster full of current and future Hall of Famers — and they failed even to make the playoffs because of their historically bad special teams play.

All of these considerations, you might protest, pale before the goal of making players safer. But it’s not obvious that the new fair-catch rule will have this desired effect. There is no good evidence that previous changes to the kickoff have helped as much as expected. According to data collected and analyzed by Sports Illustrated, concussions during kickoffs nearly doubled from 2020 to 2022, which could be an indication that earlier rule changes are having unintended consequences that increase risk — more squib kicks, perhaps, or more floating punt-like kicks, both of which might result in more collisions.

There is a deeper point here about the questionable wisdom of sudden, top-down change. Football is not a rationalist enterprise whose rules can be adjusted on a whim according to the tinkering logic of business consultants and risk-averse corporate lawyers. It is an essentially violent game with a particular history and with players and coaches and a fan base of millions who care about its continuity with its past. Evolution can occur, but organically.

Many players and coaches formally opposed the new kickoff rule when it was proposed, but like many workers before them, they have found themselves helpless in the face of H.R. Some coaches have continued to voice their opposition, including Belichick, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens (who has suggested that the rule change may result in more injuries) and Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs (who has warned that if the league continues to eliminate fundamental aspects of the game, N.F.L. teams will find themselves “playing flag football”).

During a recent preseason broadcast, the former Arizona Cardinals fullback Ron Wolfley called the rule change an “abomination,” sounding a suitably apocalyptic note, and suggested that football by definition cannot be safe.

I for one agree with him. I hope that the N.F.L. chooses to reconsider and reverse its decision at the end of the season (as it has sometimes done with other rule changes). Football, with its stylized warfare between city-states, its ritualized celebration of morally ambivalent heroes, its trophies and its encouragement of a quasi-pagan fatalism in the face of defeat, is among the only vestiges of our classical inheritance.

Homer captured the spirit of the N.F.L. when he dismissed mortality as beneath the concern of the great-souled: “Even as are the generations of leaves, such are those also of men. As for the leaves, the wind scattereth some upon the earth.”

Source photographs by greg801 and Zadas_Photography, via Getty Images.

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