The Chiefs’ Steven Terrell had to be helped off the field after suffering a concussion on the opening kickoff against the Texans.
Steven Terrell suffered a concussion five seconds into the NFL’s showcase game of Week 5, felled by a form of unpredictable contact that is rarely seen outside of a kickoff. Terrell, a reserve safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, had been pushed to the ground from behind and then kicked in the head by a would-be tackler who was spinning wildly after sprinting some 60 yards to the ball.
Terrell lay facedown on the turf for several minutes at Houston’s NRG Stadium before walking to the sideline and being diagnosed with a concussion. The delay was long enough for any sane observer to wonder: Is it time for the kickoff to go?
At this point, I think we can make a strong argument for eliminating the play in its present form. For starters, it remains uniquely dangerous — despite multiple rule changes designed to curb its violence. In a game where Texans superstar J.J. Watt can break his leg after taking an awkward step, the force involved in kickoff injuries is stark. And efforts to make it safer have collectively crushed its entertainment value.
This season, 63.8 percent of kickoffs have been downed for a touchback, a notable increase over last season during the same period (58.6). Of those that have been returned, 36.6 percent have been tackled short of the 20-yard line. There have been no touchdown returns, once one of the most exciting plays in football, and the average drive starting point after a kickoff return this season has been the 24.4 yard line.
In other words, the NFL is approaching a proportion where there is essentially no play on two out of every three kickoffs. As recently as 2010, that was true on only 1.6 of every 10 kickoffs. Now, more than a third of the returns we do see don’t make it to the 20-yard line. So now our window for an entertaining return is down to roughly two-thirds of the one-third of total kickoffs.
The question the NFL competition committee must ask is whether that ratio is worth preserving the play, one with a long history and strong sentimental value but increasingly neutered dramatics. Because, as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted in 2016, the league is fooling itself if it believes it can filter out the unique collisions that occur when players are sprinting downfield to make a tackle.
That was the goal last season, when the latest rule change mandated that a touchback be placed at the 25-yard line instead of the 20. The goal was to encourage more returners to take the touchback, but that incentive was mitigated by coaches who ordered “popup” kicks designed to fall short of the goal line and require a return.
We saw an example of that strategy on Sunday night’s opening kick. The Houston Texans‘ Ka’imi Fairbairn popped a kick into the corner that the Chiefs’ Akeem Hunt fielded at the 4-yard line. The coverage team was down the field in plenty of time, and Hunt made it only 15 yards before the Texans converged on him at the 19. Among the group of tacklers was Jordan Todman, whose legs struck Terrell’s helmet as he spun off Hunt.
When you add the touchback incentive to earlier rule changes that eliminated blocking wedges and moved the kicking spot from the 30-yard line to the 35, you have what amounts to a gutted play.
And in exchange for what? Some will point to the role of onside kicks in dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks. Do you know how many onside kicks get recovered every season? There were seven in 2016, which is through 256 games and among 2,632 kickoffs. During the past five seasons, there haven’t been more than 11 onside kicks recovered. It’s a low percentage play that occurs in the smallest slice of instances. I wouldn’t worry about a fundamental change to football if it’s no longer available.
It’s true that concussions on kickoffs did drop slightly last season, from 20 to 17. But overall there were more total injuries on kickoffs than in 2015, according to league data. Players remain at risk on touchbacks because, as Belichick noted, coverage and blocking teams still work at full speed until they see the referee’s signal. Sunday night, in fact, we saw Texans athletic trainers attending to safety Corey Moore after a fourth-quarter kickoff that bounced out of the end zone.
This is the type of challenge the NFL will face as it attempts to navigate the realities of concussions and long-term health of players in the years ahead. It appears increasingly obvious that nuanced attempts to tweak the kickoff have affected its value as much as its safety.
The NFL should consider either a more substantive change — NFL coaches in recent years have pitched the idea of a kickoff that is arranged more like a punt, to further minimize full-speed contact — or just ditch it altogether and start possessions after scores at the 25-yard line. It’s understandable how this middle road formed, but at the moment it’s not serving a purpose worth preserving.