A Solution to College Football's Kickoff Conundrum

As you know, MaconDawg was at yesterday’s Peach State Pigskin Preview, where Mark Richt endorsed the idea of eliminating kickoffs in college football, though Coach Richt’s proposal differed somewhat from the suggestion offered by Greg Schiano, who favored giving the scoring team a fourth and 15 at its own 30 yard line after the Rutgers Scarlet KnightsEric LeGrand was paralyzed while making a tackle on a kickoff return. Coach Richt, by contrast, preferred to give the receiving team possession somewhere in the vicinity of its own 23 yard line.

Any civilized person is sympathetic to LeGrand’s situation. It is regrettable that injuries take place in sport, and all reasonable efforts should be made to ensure player safety. Reasonableness, however, is to be judged not just according to the severity of risks, but also by the probability of their occurrence. What happened to Johnathan Taylor is terrible, but it was a freak accident, and proposing an "outfield fly rule" to eliminate the possibility of player collisions such as that one would be an overreaction akin to the effort to outlaw football in Georgia following Von Gammon’s death in 1897.

P.J. O’Rourke once noted that, if one were to redesign a horse with complete safety in mind, the result would be a cow, which is a very dull animal to see racing in the Kentucky Derby. George Will likewise pointed out that not all traffic regulations are reasonable merely because they would have salutary effects; reducing the speed limit to 35 miles per hour on the highway and outlawing left turns undeniably would reduce the number and severity of automobile collisions, but such extreme measures would be overkill.

Football is a violent game; as Vince Lombardi famously noted, dancing is a contact sport, but football is a collision sport. Serious injuries are a risk, even on routine plays. Changes to the rules of the game are warranted to address unduly high levels of risk; the legalization of the forward pass represented a fundamental alteration of the game, but it ameliorated an unacceptably elevated level of danger to players. College football’s elimination of the wedge block represents a less sweeping change designed to confront Coach Schiano’s valid concerns.

I am opposed to Coach Schiano’s proposal, because it dramatically alters the nature of the game by creating a "make it, take it" situation for the scoring team, thereby devaluing defense as a part of the game. Giving possession to the team that has just scored, rather than to the team that has just been scored upon, represents a sweeping shift in the sport without analogue in the last century.

While I have less of a problem with Coach Richt’s recommendation, I agree with Christian Robinson that eliminating special teams plays would affect adversely athletes’ ability to earn playing time through their performance on coverage and return teams. A few devastating injuries might be avoided, but many more opportunities for players like Chad Gloer to improve their status from walk-ons to scholarship athletes certainly would be lost.

As Coach Schiano notes, the problem is one of physics: players today are much larger and faster than they were when the kickoff was invented, so their collisions are more risky than they were initially. Obviously, players are not going to get smaller or slower, so the only variable it is within the NCAA’s power to control is distance. If a larger, faster player must propel himself downfield at maximum velocity, reduce the length of the straight line he must travel, and you will reduce the force with which he arrives at his destination. Don’t give him the room within which to build up an unacceptably dangerous head of steam.

When college football moved kickoffs from the 35 yard line to the 30 in 2007, former Georgia coach Jim Donnan said: "This is a massive change in college football. It's going to be very difficult to kick the ball out of the end zone from the 30-yard line unless you have a heavy wind." It was this change that exacerbated unreasonably the risk Coach Richt and Coach Schiano wish to see addressed.

The solution, therefore, is to move the line back. How doable is that? The NFL just did it. Restoring the status quo ante 2007 would produce more touchbacks and fewer injuries without dramatically changing---or, really, changing at all---the nature of the game. We could even move kickoffs to the 40 yard line, where the restraining line is located in high school, and make the game safer still. There would be fewer returns, and the returns that did occur would result in less violent collisions, because the players on the coverage team will have had fewer yards within which to accelerate.

I respect Coach Richt’s and Coach Schiano’s positions, but their legitimate and important concerns are able to be addressed adequately in less sweeping ways. Don’t eliminate the kickoff; just move it.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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