NFL one step closer to eliminating kickoff returns

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- One day, it has long been assumed, the NFL will outlaw the kickoff. It's one of the most dangerous plays in football, a sub-concussive factory, and as New York Giants owner John Mara said just this week: "You've got to do whatever you can to protect [players]."

Here's another idea: What if the league manages a passive end to the kickoff, one that functionally eliminates its impact without formally banning it?

We might be moving in that direction already, and there will be no doubt if owners approve a proposal to move the touchback to the 25-yard line for 2016. The NFL competition committee has endorsed the idea, and a vote is expected here this week.

A change almost certainly would accelerate a pattern of fewer returns and more touchbacks that began with the 2011 decision to move up the kick to the 35-yard line. Before you know it, the only strategic reasons to return a kick will be to make up a late scoring deficit or to capitalize on a unique talent.

Injuries on kickoff returns rose last season, competition committee co-chairman and Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay confirmed. The precise nature and number of those injuries were not available, and that data has ebbed and flowed in recent years. But committee member Mark Murphy -- the Green Bay Packers' president/CEO -- indicated that concussions made up a portion of the 2015 increase.

"When we look at the film and we look at particularly the concussions that were sustained, the kickoff just stands out," Murphy said. "It's a very dangerous play. We've been successful, I think, with some of the changes increasing the number of the touchbacks, but moving it to the 25-yard line should help us have even fewer returns. You're taking an exciting play out of the game, but from a safety standpoint, it's really something that I think is a concern."

The easy answer, of course, is to eliminate the kickoff entirely. Why continue with a play in which a receiver must either take a knee (boring) or run into a concussion-producing phalanx of cover men (hazardous)?

"We understand that it's been a historical part of the game," McKay said, "and nobody wants to mess with the history part of the game unless it need be. It's one we continue to look at. We looked at all the injury data this year from it. We looked at all the plays. We still like the play. And I think we still need to keep working at it."

Short of a formal elimination, the next best thing might be to make kickoff returns so unappealing that they almost never make sense. Look at what already has happened in the wake of the 2011 rule change. As the chart below shows, the percentage of returned kickoffs has dropped from 80.1 percent to 41.1 percent, while touchbacks have jumped from 16.4 percent of all kickoffs to 56 percent in 2015. Last season, the NFL had 390 more touchbacks than kickoff returns.

Now, consider how those numbers could accelerate with a 25-yard touchback, assuming that teams don't resort in mass volume to "mortar kicks" that force a returner to catch it in the field of play. (Similar fears never materialized after the 2011 rule change. Mortar kicks are difficult to execute, they stress coverage teams and still promote an opportunity for a long return.) Let's use 2015 numbers as our guide.

The average kickoff traveled to the goal line and the average kickoff return went for 23.5 yards. That put the average start of a possession after a kickoff at about the 24-yard line, including those that went for touchbacks.

Under the new rule, the returner would need at least a 26-yard return on an average kickoff to beat the automatic spot at the 25-yard line -- while also risking a turnover, penalty and/or injury.

To make it easier, let's round off the necessary return at 30 yards. Last season, according to ESPN senior researcher Evan Kaplan, about 25 percent of returns from the end zone went for at least 30-plus yards.

So a team with a top returner -- the Minnesota Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson averaged 31.8 yards per return last season, for example -- would be motivated to continue similar strategies. Most teams, however, would be better off directing their returner to take a knee and avoid the turnover/injury risk, according to ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke. As noted before, the obvious exceptions are an elite talent advantage or the game situation.

Ostensibly, McKay said, the new touchback rule would discourage most returners from taking back balls kicked deep into the end zone. It'll also accelerate the ongoing phase out of the play itself. There are plenty of underused strategic options available to teams. Ever heard of the fair-catch kick? One day soon, the kickoff will be one of them.

ESPN Green Bay Packers reporter Rob Demovsky contributed to this story.