Thursday, March 24, 2011

The most boring play in football

Josh Cribbs - now with more touchbacks!
Josh Cribbs is not a happy man.

The Browns kickoff specialist is chafing against newly instated changes to kickoffs that will likely lead to more touchbacks and therefore fewer chances for guys like Cribbs to take it to the house.

Per the modifications, the kickoff line will be moved up five yards from the 30-yard-line to the 35 (where it was until 1994), although a touchback will still bring the ball back to the 20. (An original proposal bringing touchbacks to the 25 was nixed.) A kickoff out of bounds will still result in an offense beginning a drive at the 40.

“It's just eliminating a lot of the opportunities for returners to make their names in the NFL,” Cribbs said in an interview with ESPN.

And how. There are fewer exciting plays in football than a kickoff returner threading his way through a perfectly formed wedge for a score. On the flip side, there’s no duller play in the game than an explosive speedster like Cribbs or Devin Hester impotently taking a knee in the end zone. The so-called “No Fun League” is doing nothing to quell that nickname by chipping away at one of the sport’s more exhilarating elements.

At first blush, the reasoning behind the rule change seems sound. The league is trying to reduce concussions and other injuries due to the violent collisions that take place when some 200-pound back-up cornerback with a 70-yard head start is sprinting down the field looking to put a mean stick on an opposing ball carrier.

How many ESPN highlights have we seen over the years of said sprinting cornerback getting turned inside out on a blindside block? How many times have we collectively shouted “Oh daaammmnn!” upon viewing such a crushing blow? The NFL is looking out for player safety, a major point last season when enforcement of the helmet-to-helmet rule became the league’s cause du jour.

Still, the new kickoff rule goes too far. It serves as a bailout for teams who are already kicking way from players like Cribbs and Hester. The rule change doesn’t mean every kickoff will result in a touchback, of course, but there will certainly be an uptick from last year’s reported touchback rate of 16% of all kickoffs.

League officials, meanwhile, have produced no concrete data supporting the reasoning that the rule change would reduce the chance of injury. They’re simply telling us that the chance of injury is higher on kickoffs. It makes me wonder if wide receivers should be banned from going over the middle on the chance they’ll take a massive hit from a hard-charging free safety. Where does the league draw the line on protecting its players and defanging an inherently dangerous sport?

Change can be a positive thing – the helmet-to-helmet brouhaha was a legitimate and important league response to a potentially hazardous situation. The new kickoff rule is more specious: Like it or not, the NFL is a violent league. Taking away every possible instance where a player may get injured does nothing more than hurt the game.