We’re going to learn a lot about Peyton Manning’s neck—and his brain—in the coming weeks. Since the rules for athletic superstars tend to be different from those for the rank and file, I’d like to believe that the Indianapolis Colts’ management and medical staff won’t pressure Manning to return to the field before he is fully recovered from his recent neck surgery, or minimize the risks of his returning too soon. But both of those things happen daily in the NFL. Unlike almost every other professional football player, Manning has the luxury of not worrying that he’ll be replaced if his rehabilitation takes an extra day, week, or month. And should his career not resume at all, he is rather comfortable financially. But Manning is also a control freak, arguably the most cerebral, prepared, demanding, and successful quarterback in the history of the sport. After 13 seasons bossing around teammates and coaches, who’s to say he won’t call an audible on his doctors, too?
I’m going to hand off your question about the effects of the offseason lockout to the Deadspin backfield. (My brief take: A decline in the quality of play due to the labor-induced reduction in spring and summer practices will be imperceptible to all fans except those who either watch every down of every game to compile statistics for Football Outsiders, or root for the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals.) Instead, I’d like to break down the foofaraw surrounding the NFL’s new rule moving kickoffs five yards closer to the receiving team’s end zone, to the 35-yard line.
North Korea moving its border fences five yards south wouldn’t generate as much media attention as the NFL’s kickoff shift has. That’s partly because, for the first time in several years, there’s an absence of headline-grabbing negativism in the NFL right now. Labor peace is guaranteed for a decade, Alan Schwarz has left the concussion beat at the New York Times, and the league’s biggest-name bad boys are getting married, signing “$100 million” contracts, and having fun on the field again.
But there’s more to the kickoff kerfuffle than a simple news vacuum. A kick return, when it goes right for the return team, is 15 seconds of total excitement: a soaring ball; a thud into the returner’s arms; a crescendo of flying bodies, balletic blocks, juking moves, and open-field exhilaration; paroxysmal announcers. But it’s also one of the most insanely dangerous plays in an insanely dangerous sport: superbig, superstrong, and superfast athletes hurling themselves into one another at school-zone speed limits. So, last spring, the NFL’s omnipotent competition committee shortened the kickoff to reduce the potential for the sort of catastrophic injury suffered by Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills in 2007.
Moving the kickoff to the 35—while simultaneously limiting kicking-team players (other than the kicker) to a running start of no more than five yards—is designed to have two effects. It will decrease the head-cracking momentum kicking-team blockers and tacklers can achieve before encountering the opposition. It will also make it easier for today’s iron-legged kickers to boot the ball deeper into or all the way out of the end zone, negating the return entirely and transforming the most exciting play in the NFL into the dullest: the touchback. Fewer kick returns equals fewer collisions equals fewer injuries.
Whether this will be the outcome, no one really knows. The average starting position following a returned NFL kickoff is the 32-yard-line, or 12 yards beyond that of a touchback. So it follows that more touchbacks should translate to less scoring, and that teams, especially those with kickoff giants like the Baltimore Ravens’ Billy Cundiff, should automatically go for the touchback. But coaches don’t like the rule, and they do like the high potential ROI of a kickoff return. So they might order their kicker to loft the ball to the 5-yard-line or the goal line, forcing a runback into an onslaught of defenders. Or they might instruct their returners, especially if they have a great one, like Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears or Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns, to run the ball out of the end zone.
But the technical impact of the rule change isn’t why it’s attracted so much preseason attention. Rather, everyone’s talking kickoffs because the play is a microcosm of the conflict and anxiety felt by fans, players, coaches, owners, and journalists. After several years of news stories about chronic traumatic encephalopathy among former NFL players, we’re all inured to the idea, if we ever weren’t, that football is a stupid game, safety-wise. Yet we love it because, like the kickoff, it’s so viscerally appealing, and we don’t want to see it go away.
What’s surprised me in the run-up to the season has been the near unanimity among players and coaches in condemning the new kickoff rule. While NFL suits have been consistent in saying the kickoff change was made after watching video and reviewing injury data, players have complained that it’s a catastrophe. One former Tennessee Titans special-teams player, Donnie Nickey, said it not only was acing kickoff specialists like him out of jobs, it was ruining the game. “Businessmen, lawyers, and insurance companies are turning football into flag football and preventing men like me from feeding my family,” Nickey wrote in a hyperbolic email to the Tennessean newspaper.
It’s not just Nickey. Player after player thinks moving the kickoff is a terrible idea. That demonstrates one of the great paradoxes of the NFL. The league’s performers don’t want to wind up with dementia at age 40, but they’re simultaneously loath to embrace even small measures to help prevent that from happening—or to help fans appreciate that the NFL consists of gifted athletes rather than “fearless player warrior[s].” Hey, violence is part of the game. We know that when we sign up for it.
Which is true, of course. But the NFL could have spared itself some of the kickoff blowback by releasing the data that it claims it relied on in making its decision. (A 2007 study of high-school football by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, cited by the sports blog The Big Lead, reported that, of injuries that occurred during kickoffs and punts, 33 percent were classified as “severe” and 20 percent were concussions, compared to 19 percent and 11 percent, respectively, during the rest of the game.) * Otherwise, as former Denver Broncos special teamer Nate Jackson said this week on Slate’s sports podcast, “Hang Up and Listen,” the kickoff change seems like a P.R. ploy to make the public think the league is doing something about injuries, when anything short of banning football isn’t enough.
So, Tommy, is the NFL in 2011 officially turning into a league of wussies?
Correction, Sept. 7, 2011: This article originally included incorrect data on the proportion of severe injuries and concussions that occur during punts and kickoffs. (Return to the corrected sentence.)