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Goodell's kickoff trial balloon raises eyebrows

Dec 06, 2012 -- 11:12pm
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Randall Cobb is gang-tackled during a kickoff return against Chicago.


GREEN BAY – Shawn Slocum had read the story, Tim Masthay had not. But both the Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator and his punter agreed: The proposal floated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about eliminating kickoffs from the game must have some legs because it was put out there by, well, him.

“I guess since Roger’s mentioning it, there’s something to it,” Masthay said after practice Thursday.

In a TIME magazine cover story, Goodell brought up an idea for replacing kickoffs with this: Giving the ball to the team that is supposed to be kicking off at its 30-yard line on a fourth-and-15. That team could then punt the ball away or go for the first down, either with a traditional offensive play or by running a fake punt.

The reason behind the idea, of course, is the NFL’s desire to eliminate the high-speed collisions that occur on kickoffs. The fourth-down approach would still give teams a way to get the ball back without having onside kicks, which are also dangerous.

While the story is not yet available online to non-print edition subscribers, the magazine did do a blog post about Goodell’s proposal. In the blog, Goodell admits that the idea is unconventional.

“The fact is,” Goodell tells the magazine, “it’s a much different end of the play. … It’s an off-the-wall idea. It’s different and makes you think differently. It did me.”

The idea originated with Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, who watched one of his players at Rutgers, Eric LeGrand, suffer a neck injury during a kickoff that left him paralyzed. The concern is not only for returners’ safety but that of blockers and cover men, who collide with incredible force. With the thousands of ex-NFL players participating in class-action lawsuits over concussions, eliminating kickoffs has been a hot-button issue.

“It would change the game quite a bit,” Slocum said. “I haven’t had a chance to really digest it all but I think it would definitely have an effect on the game.

“I think that we all have to be conscious of player safety, and that’s probably the motivating issue here. At the same time that we do that, we need to all be conscious that we’ve got a very good game the way it’s set up, and if there are some things that we can adjust to make it better, then we’d consider doing that.

“(Goodell’s idea) would be a big change because you’re going from a free kick and all the rules that go along with that, to a scrimmage kick and all the rules that go along with that. For example, you kick the ball out of bounds on a kickoff now, the opponent gets the ball at the 40. A lot of punts are punted out of bounds intentionally, and so what you say this is a scrimmage kick so you can punt it out of bounds, and that’s OK? You take the return completely out of the game.”

Asked if he has any sense whether, one way or another, kickoffs are going to be eliminated, Slocum replied: “I think that there is a continued effort to protect the players, and I think that most of the rules in this game are continually evaluated in that regard. As we move forward, there are very likely to be some changes in the way we do it.”

Masthay said the proposal had to be that the kickoff team would run a traditional fourth-down punt, and not a free-kick as is done after a safety, because those punts are virtually the same as kickoffs. The only real difference would be that Masthay would do the honors instead of kicker Mason Crosby.

“If you were treating it like a safety kick, there’d be no point in even changing the rule,” Masthay said. “Because I’m assuming that changing the rule is designed for players safety; I’m assuming they’re saying that punts are less physical plays than kickoff because you don’t have 10 guys sprinting full speed into other guys retreating, trying to set up and block. Punt doesn’t work like that. You have different levels of coverage; it’s just not as collision-intensive. So I’m assuming that’d be the purpose.

“But if you’re doing a safety kick, that’s the exact same thing as a kickoff. It’s different for me and Mason, I’m obviously punting instead of (him) kicking, but you still have 10 guys lining up, sprinting downfield and setting up returns.”

Masthay would see his workload increase, though. That’s for certain.

“It doesn’t necessarily change the skill of punting. Say the rule got adopted, it wouldn’t really change anything that I’m doing, but you’d obviously be out there a lot more,” Masthay said. “You’re punting would carry a little bit more weight because you’d be out there instead of averaging five times a game, you’d be out there averaging 10 times a game.”

The idea, which was clearly a trial balloon to gauge reaction, was not met with many positive reviews. New York Jets special teams guru Mike Westhoff said he didn’t like the idea, and he told USA Today that he and Jets assistant special teams coach Ben Kotwica compiled a list of suggestions for altering kickoffs from coaches around the league that they submitted this past spring.

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