Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Jul 2016

Ivy League Moves Kickoffs to 40-Yard Line

The Ivy League has announced that it has received permission from the NCAA to experiment with kickoffs this season. In conference games only, teams will kick off from their own 40-yard line, with kickoffs being brought out to the 20.

I have always heard that special teams plays were more dangerous than plays from scrimmage, but never saw any data to back that up. Well, the Ivy League's announcement includes this tidbit: "The goal of the experimental rule is to limit kickoff returns, which account for 23.4 percent of concussions during games despite representing only 5.8 percent of overall plays." This is based only on Ivy League games, in data collected since 2013. But Ivy Leaguers are smart, and I can't imagine any hidden agenda they'd have here. If those numbers are even close to accurate, then I'm in favor of permanently banning kickoffs, starting immediately.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 20 Jul 2016

28 comments, Last at 05 Sep 2016, 11:23pm by erniecohen


by Dr. Mooch :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 7:22am

And yet, if those numbers are accurate then banning kickoffs will do nothing to prevent the vast majority (76.6%) of concussions, so you'll have to start looking at whatever else 'disproportionately' contributes to concussions.

Banning the most dangerous type of play is a slippery slope. Once it's gone then the most dangerous type of play is whatever was next on the list. A game consisting only of hail mary's and kneeldowns would be almost concussion-free.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 8:21am

That really isn't a very good slippery slope argument. If there were 3 more plays like kickoffs, then nearly all concussions could be eliminated, by taking away 20% of football plays, which would leave a lot more than Hail Marys and kneeldowns. Of course, there aren't 3 more plays like kickoffs. Kickoffs are somewhat unique, which is why eliminating them would not change the game hugely, while taking out a large chunk of concussions.

The biggest problem with eliminating kickoffs is developing a way for a team which scores a td to retain possession, or a team which yields a td to get good field position, especially when a late game situation makes doing those things imperative. I think one solution would be to allow a team which scores a td to go for 2 from the 15, or maybe 20 yard line, and if they can convert that, they keep the ball. Then, a team which yields a td has the option of defending the two point conversion from the 1/2 yard line, and if they succeed, they get the ball at, oh, I dunno, their own 45. The team which is trailing, or was most recently trailing, is given the choice.

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 9:33am

Doesn't the idea that you kick-off from the 40 essentially allow for your scenarios?

Maybe move it to midfield. Essentially get it to a point where any real kick-off is a touchback, but allow for on-side kicks as well (my guess is very few of those 23.4% of concussions were on on-sides kicks).

by tuluse :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 9:38am

I don't want massive numbers of concussions, but I would have enjoyed the NFL much less the past decade without Devin Hester.

Stupid frail human body.

by dank067 :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 10:14am

I wonder what the concussion rate is on punts? Seems like you'd have fewer high-speed collisions, and punts that go out of bounds probably prevent more collisions than touchbacks. If the numbers are similar to those on regular plays from scrimmage, maybe having a team line up from scrimmage to punt in place of a kickoff would be a way to preserve the return game.

by tuluse :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 11:11am

I think the problem is less the style of kick then having players line up 40 yards away from each other and run towards each other full speed.

Although, if the rule was the kicking team had to line up in punt formation but were then able to run any play they wanted would be interesting. It would preserve the ability to retain possession (treat it like a 4th and 10 maybe?), and reduce injuries I'd think since you'd have to defend gunners like a real punt.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 4:25pm

I'd really hate to see kickoffs lost from the game but when they make up a significant percentage of injuries, you've got to reconsider.

For me, restart with a punt is best option. We knocked that idea around earlier in the year over here ... http://www.footballoutsiders.com/extra-points/2016/nfl-moves-touchbacks-...

by ChrisS :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 12:18pm

Assuming punts have a very low concussion inciodence then how about the following stupid idea. The team scoring gets the ball at the 40 yard line following a score (a make-it-take rule) but any play besides a punt immediately following a score is a 15 yard penalty inforced from the spot of the football (and loss of down). So the offense essentially needs to get 25 yards for a first down or punt and have the opponent start at the 20, assuming on average a 40 yard net punt.

by LionInAZ :: Fri, 07/22/2016 - 12:38am

Without kick returns you might have seen *more* Devin Hester -- as a WR.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 9:47am

I want the team which yielded a td to tave some way of obtaining much better than usual field position with the ensuing possession. If it gets rid of a vanilla PAT attempt, all the better.

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 12:32pm

But apart from a good kick return, that isn't really a thing now either, right?

by Will Allen :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 12:56pm

Not often enough, and I think it makes the game worse. The opportunity to flip field position, after giving up a td, makes the game better, in my opinion.

by Steve in WI :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 6:01pm

I think we're approaching a point where we're either going to have to acknowledge that football is an inherently dangerous sport (like boxing or MMA) or we are going to have to make drastic changes to it so that it's essentially a different sport. Getting rid of kickoffs looks a lot like the latter to me.

I think the NFL would welcome a lot of attention focused on kickoffs because it would give them another way to keep the focus on concussions and not the general accumulation of head trauma. In my opinion the evidence is growing that anyone who plays long enough to make it to the NFL is in considerable danger of CTE, with or without concussions. And it's only drastic changes to the game that would maybe mitigate that. Concussions are terrible, no question, but the cynic in me says that the NFL is working pretty hard to keep the discussion on concussions rather than the subconcussive hits that every player experiences hundreds or thousands of times.

by tuluse :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 7:31pm

I think we've known for a long time football is dangerous. The question is how dangerous and what level of danger is acceptable.

As a society, we're basically OK with pro-athletes not being able to walk by 50 (hey that's why they make the big bucks right?), but brain damage is more troubling.

by RobotBoy :: Fri, 07/22/2016 - 2:48am

You make an important point.
As a typical American boy of my era, I spent my childhood bouncing headfirst off various objects, from frozen ground to trees and walls. We played tackle football regularly and 'muckle', a game in which the football is tossed up and you smash whoever catches it (we fought a lot too but kids that age can't bust a grape with their fists). We just loved to hit.
Good times, but by the age of 12, I'd had hundreds of real blows to the head, including one serious concussion. My folks wouldn't let me play Pop Warner at that age because I was under five feet and a hundred pounds. While I later had a pretty serious amateur boxing career, there was a about a decade of brain development that didn't involve brain trauma (at least from hitting).
The point to this rather long-winded preamble is that anyone involved in professional sports will suffer thousands of sub-concussive blows - thousands more than I did - by the time the reach college, at ages when their brain is most vulnerable. As research is showing, CTE damage appears in people as early as their late-teens and early twenties. By the time players get to the NFL, it's probably too late.
One important aid would be to make all football non-contact before high-school and have most. or all, high-school practices be non-contact. By doing that, you'd be preserving kids from the years when much of the damage is done (mature brains seem less vulnerable).
How many FO readers would let their sons play high school or college football?

by Noah Arkadia :: Sat, 07/23/2016 - 11:17pm

I wouldn't want them to, but man, what if they're like you and they just love to hit? You can't just repress a whole side of a person without repercussions.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 07/24/2016 - 4:47am

Teaching your kids that there's good ways to express emotions and bad ways is not repressing them.

It's only repressing it, if you you deny it entirely.

But instead of hitting other people you could get them to go hit baseballs or tennis balls.

If they like hit other people as a way of expressing their anger, then that's definitely the time to teach them how to express that anger in a different way. Or even to look at why they're getting angry in the first place.

by Will Allen :: Sun, 07/24/2016 - 11:16am

Has it been established to what degree that NFL players suffer from memory loss and/or dementia at a higher rate than MLB or NBA players? We think it will affect NFL players at about a 40% higher rate than the general population, but I've not seen anything which compares the NFL to other sports.

Hopefully, for all of humanity's sake, the experimental drugs being explored which prevent/remove protein accumulation in brain tissue, and reduce inflammation will be effective, even when the underlying issue is subconcussive trauma. The NFL may be ideally suited to absorb a good chunk of the cost for such trials.

by Noah Arkadia :: Sun, 07/24/2016 - 9:41pm

I think you're on the right track, but I believe there are kids for whom hitting the tennis ball is not enough. I believe the element of getting hit themselves is part of it -the intensity or danger, I don't know. But definitely teaching them to let it out in a way that won't hurt others. Like parachuting or swimming with sharks or something. I only half-kid. I'm sure there are truly positive ways of expressing the anger or need for adrenaline or whatever it is.

by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 1:00pm

nto sire exactlyl if guy(s) above were writng this (asm reradfing fast at work lunch break) but why nto totally eliminate kickoffs and redesign play after touchdowns/PAT/2-pint conversion) as a punt. in other words, what currenylt is kickoff would be similar but it would be in opunt fromation with whole bunch of guys together by line of scerimmage. this eliminates players running from 30 yards at each other with speed being built up and stuff which causes a lot of cocnussions

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 4:33pm

Yup that's essentially it.

Restart with the scoring team on 4th & long at say their own 30-yd line.

Ordinarily they'd punt to give the ball back but in desperation they could go for it.

Whether you force them to always line up in punt formation and run a fake out of it, or allow them to start in any offensive formation would be something to decide if such a rules change came in.

by mlibbeymail-foo... :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 9:45pm

I wonder:
- will coaches be more inclined to do on-side kicks as unsuccessful ones require the other team to go that much farther? Though, I suspect the concussion rate for unexpected onside kicks might not be huge.
- could Ivy League kickers be able to loft the ball more to land inside the 5? If so, the kicking team has less distance to cover, so coaches might still take the kickoff variability risk. That is, the rule change assumes that it will reduce the return rate. Wonder how valid that assumption is.

by dbostedo :: Thu, 07/21/2016 - 10:02pm

Yep... that's my first thought too. This might result in tons of touchbacks... or it could result in a bunch of pooch kickoffs in an attempt to push the other team inside the 20, and the same number of violent plays as we have now.

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 07/22/2016 - 7:39am

I'm not convinced of the punt argument. Technically, a punt after a safety is a free kick where either team can recover though it's rare when a kicking team recovers. (I do remember the Packers doing it against the Rams in 1996.) I don't know what the concussion risk during such plays.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Fri, 07/22/2016 - 3:58pm

In what way are you not convinced of the punt argument?

by Eddo :: Mon, 07/25/2016 - 5:53pm

I think the pro-punt argument would have the teams line up from scrimmage, not like a free kick, where the formation is the same as a kickoff. If the receiving team put everyone so far off the line of scrimmage (spot of the kick), the kicking team would have a much easier time gaining ten yards to get the first down and retain possession.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 07/22/2016 - 9:07am

If the danger of kickoff returns is the speed of the collisions between players, why do we draft new rules which increasingly open up the game, leading to more frequent high speed collisions between players?

by erniecohen :: Mon, 09/05/2016 - 11:23pm

If the problem is guys running at each other at high speed, just make all of the receiving players except for 2 line up 10 yards from the kickoff.

Or better yet, make *all* of the receiving players line up 10 yards from the kickoff, but more the kick back to the 25. This would make kickoffs much more exciting, but without the high speed collisions.