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Sacrificing Kickoffs Would Be Too Drastic

Berea, Ohio — The NFL must continue to find ways to make the game safer for its players, but there’s a line the league shouldn’t cross because at some point, football would no longer be football.

For example, football would not be football without kickoffs. Yet NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently revealed an idea to eliminate kickoffs that will be considered by the league’s competition committee in February.

Time magazine sat in on a meeting between Goodell and NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay in which Goodell discussed the following suggestion: After a touchdown or a field goal, instead of kicking off, the team that just scored would get the ball on its own 30-yard line, where it would automatically face fourth-and-15. The team could punt or try to retain possession by going for it. So punts would essentially replace kickoffs and going for it on fourth-and-15 would replace onside kicks.

According to Time, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano presented Goodell with the suggestion. Yesterday, Schiano told reporters he floated the idea to Goodell when he was still coaching at Rutgers University. Former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand suffered a neck injury and paralysis during a kickoff return, and the incident prompted Schiano to think of a way to eliminate kickoffs.

What happened to LeGrand is tragic, and his ongoing rehabilitation is inspirational.

But injuries are an unfortunate part of football and sports in general. Improving equipment and legislating head hunting are examples of reasonable safety measures.

Eliminating kickoffs altogether would be too drastic, too radical, to preserve the game.

“Guys get hurt on the goal line a lot,” Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “You can’t take goal-line plays out. Guys get hurt in all sorts of different situations. But those are some of the situations that make the game exciting and the reason people tune in every Sunday.”

In 2010, Goodell publicly entertained the idea of one day banning the traditional three-point stance that offensive and defensive linemen use as their starting position on most plays. Like eliminating kickoffs, prohibiting three-point stances would virtually lead to the creation of a new game.

The three-point stance is still alive. The kickoff, however, might be in more immediate danger of becoming extinct.

Browns kicker Phil Dawson believes banning the blocking wedge on kickoffs and moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 are logical rule changes that have been adopted in recent years. But he doesn’t see the point of replacing kickoffs with punts. Dawson pointed out that Browns return man Josh Cribbs was knocked unconscious and suffered a concussion this season while returning a punt in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens.

“If the argument is we want to eliminate the wide-open field, full-speed, high-impact collisions, are you really going to do that on a punt?” Dawson said. “Did Josh not get laid out on a punt this year, not a kickoff? It doesn’t even address the safety issue that they are bringing up that they’re trying to prevent. I’m not opposed to them instituting a rule that would make the game safer, but this doesn’t seem to even address what they say is dangerous in the first place.

“When the ball is 50 yards down the field, guys are running full speed and you get a lot of cross blocks and guys getting knocked out. I still wouldn’t say it’s any more dangerous than any other play. I watch wide receivers get concussions each and every week in the NFL, yet we’re going to pick on kickoffs? That doesn’t add up to me.”

Cribbs despises the thought of kickoffs disappearing.

“I couldn’t ever see that,” said Cribbs, who shares the NFL lead for kickoffs returned for a touchdown in a career with eight. “That’s like taking the field goal out of the stadium, taking the whole post and uprooting it. Only play offense and defense, just like intramurals. Play indoors and put flags in our pants.”

“It’s getting to be too much of an entertainment business instead of a sport. I know it’s a sport and entertainment, and there’s a lot of revenue involved. But it’s (becoming) straight entertainment and no sports. We won’t even be on NFL Network. We’ll be on MTV. It’d be a made-up sport, wouldn’t even be a sport.”

Which is why I believe there are elements of the game that shouldn’t be eliminated. The league should change the rules to make football safer, but it should also ensure football remains football.

“From when I was a little kid, I dreamed about having the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl and all the flashbulbs go off, and I want to be that guy,” Dawson said. “There’s so much that can be accomplished on that play for both sides. To think a guy like Josh Cribbs wouldn’t have the opportunity to have the career he’s had because of all the excitement he’s brought the game. I can remember Desmond Howard returning a kick for a touchdown in the Super Bowl and what a game-changing play that was.”

Without those possibilities, football would never be the same. It wouldn’t be changed for the better, either.