Danger of onside kicks questioned

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Larry Fitzgerald went up to field an onside kick late in Sunday's game at Tennessee, his teammates failed him.

They didn't create a bubble of blocks around the All-Pro to give him enough protection and allow Fitzgerald enough room to field the kick cleanly as a member of the Cardinals' hands team. Instead of Arizona kneeling on the ball with great field position, Tennessee's Jackie Battle nailed Fitzgerald in midair in a helmet-to-helmet collision that Fitzgerald doesn't remember, giving him a concussion. He fumbled, and Tennessee recovered and forced the game into overtime.

In the current state of football, where player safety is at the forefront of every play, the first question raised after Fitzgerald's hit was: Are onside kicks too dangerous?

Kick returners for onside kicks aren't considered defenseless receivers, according to NFL rules, because the ball is grounded before it's returnable, unlike kickoff and punt returners who field in-air kicks. But onside kick returners are immeasurably more vulnerable because they're usually looking up for the kick while they're in a scrum of players. Punt and kick returners usually aren't fielding kicks in similar types of crowds.

Although Fitzgerald said Sunday was the first time he's ever been hit like that while recovering an onside kick, it's a conversation that needs to be had by the NFL's competition committee, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

Arians' counterpart Sunday doesn't think receivers on onside kicks should be considered defenseless.

"I don't see it that way," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "I don't think that's the right thing. I think we need to protect them in the ways that we can. Again, I don't even know. I don't know exactly how this is determined here, but if a guy hit the guy with the crown of his helmet and hit him in the head, then I can't imagine they're not going to throw a penalty on that play regardless of what the rules say. We're protecting players around the game in all ways. I can't imagine that they wouldn't.

"The rule is intact right now that if a running back is running down the field and the guy hits him, targets him and lines him up and hits him with the crown of his helmet, even though he's a running back ... they'll still throw a flag. So I think that governance would still fit this situation as well. I don't think that's what happened necessarily with Larry's deal. It was a nasty hit, and it was unfortunate as can be."

Fitzgerald took the blame for the play and said he didn't protect himself well enough, but he also didn't think Battle's hit was excessive. When he's running a route, Fitzgerald said he knows where the defensive backs are so after he makes a catch he can prepare for impact. He couldn't do that on the onside kick.

"I have no idea where that guy's coming from, so I can't brace myself," Fitzgerald said. "I'm in a vulnerable position. He just caught me.

"Muhammad Ali got knocked out a couple times too. It just happens. He caught me flush."

Fitzgerald doesn't remember getting hit, but that didn't stop him from returning to the hands team this week in practice.

Carroll didn't want to single out the onside kick situation, but he believes it will be reviewed by the league as part of its sweeping review of player safety.

"They're just trying to make the game better," he said. "It is a dangerous play. Every snap from scrimmage is a dangerous play. I don't know that that one is any different than any of the other ones. But at this point, in our evolution of the game and how we're trying to promote it and also protect it, it's apropos that we should look at everything else we look at to make sure that it's as safe as it can possibly be."