NFL’s New Rule Puts Kick Return in Jeopardy, Raising Concerns over Player Safety
In a week filled with tension and challenges for NFL coach Sean McDermott, he found himself daydreaming about kick returns. His Buffalo Bills were set to play just six days after a harrowing incident where safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and was revived on the field. McDermott, in the midst of preparing his team, couldn’t help but wonder if they could rewrite history and reclaim that opening kickoff.
The kick return holds a significant place in American sports, capturing the imagination of fans as the ball is launched into the air, poised to unleash a thrilling sequence of events that can shape a game, a season, or even a career.
One such memorable play occurred in a January game when Buffalo’s Nyheim Hines caught the opening kickoff at the 4-yard line, skillfully maneuvered through tacklers, and sprinted along the sideline for a touchdown. The crowd erupted, players were left in awe, and commentator Jim Nantz exclaimed, “This is storybook!” However, this exhilarating moment is precisely the type of play that the NFL is attempting to eliminate.
On a Tuesday at the league meetings, the NFL took a step towards rendering the kick return irrelevant and potentially eliminating it altogether. Owners voted in favor of turning fair catches made inside the 25-yard line into touchbacks, thereby incentivizing returners to opt for the fair catch instead of attempting to evade coverage teams. The rule, which will be implemented in the 2023 season and could become permanent, aims to reduce the number of kick returns and address the issue of concussions, which the league claims are more prevalent in special teams plays.
While the NFL argues that this rule change is intended to prioritize player safety, it is important to acknowledge that football, by its very nature, can never be completely safe. Although kick returns may pose a higher risk compared to other plays, the inherent violence of the sport remains prevalent throughout. It is difficult to reconcile the league’s emphasis on safety when other decisions, such as approving late-season Thursday night games that may lead to truncated weeks between games, seemingly contradict this commitment. By eliminating the kick return, the NFL may improve the perception of player safety without addressing the broader scope of risks within the game.
As the league continues its efforts to make football safer, it becomes increasingly evident that the kick return is on the verge of extinction. Last season, 19 concussions were reported on kick returns, providing the NFL with ammunition to support their case. However, the average play in football remains a symphony of violence, highlighting the potential incongruity between the league’s safety initiatives and the game itself. While the elimination of the kick return may enhance player safety to some extent, it also signifies the loss of a play that has influenced Super Bowls and propelled players towards Hall of Fame careers.
Brian Mitchell, who began his NFL journey as a fifth-round draft pick and quarterback at Southwestern Louisiana, became one of the greatest kick returners in history under the guidance of Coach Joe Gibbs. Mitchell’s record-breaking career was only overshadowed by the sensational performances of Devin Hester, who transformed kickoffs into must-watch moments during his tenure with the Chicago Bears. Hester’s rookie season included two kickoff returns for touchdowns, setting the stage for the Bears’ run to Super Bowl XLI. In a bold decision, Colts Coach Tony Dungy kicked off to Hester in the opening moments of the game, resulting in yet another memorable return for a touchdown. These instances demonstrate the significant impact that kick returns can have on the outcome of games and the rise of legendary players.
The Super Bowl itself has been influenced by kick returns. Desmond Howard’s 99-yard return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI shifted the momentum and ultimately earned him the title of Super Bowl MVP, a rare feat for a special teamer. The thrill and excitement generated by kick returns are unparalleled, and they have provided a platform for players to launch their careers or solidify their place in NFL history.
The potential ramifications of the recent rule change extend beyond the returners themselves. Players who excel in tackling returners, such as Steve Tasker and Matthew Slater, have earned accolades and secured their positions as respected figures in the league. However, as the number of kick returns dwindles, it becomes increasingly challenging for teams to justify roster spots for exclusive special teamers. The game loses some of its richness as these subtle skills are phased out.
Steve Tasker, a former special teams player and now a broadcaster, acknowledges the inevitable decline of the kick return. He believes that the NFL’s continuous evolution is what has allowed the game to thrive. While he appreciates the importance of special teams, Tasker understands that the league’s focus on player safety may supersede fan interest. The NFL’s drive to eliminate the kick return signifies a departure from the traditional game, raising questions about the future of one of football’s most iconic plays.
The recent rule change approved by the NFL to limit kick returns is likely to have a profound impact on the game. Teams may adjust their strategies, kickers may opt for low kicks to prevent fair catches, and situational kick returns may become the norm. Yet, the essence of the kickoff as we know it will be forever transformed. This evolution has been unfolding for years, and the NFL’s latest decision merely accelerates the process. However, amidst the changing landscape, football remains a dynamic sport that continues to captivate fans and players alike.
In conclusion, the NFL’s recent rule change poses a significant challenge to the kick return, potentially signaling its eventual demise. While the decision aims to enhance player safety, it also highlights the ongoing tension between prioritizing safety and preserving the essence of the game. The kick return has shaped memorable moments, propelled players to greatness, and provided fans with unforgettable experiences. As the NFL strives for a safer future, the loss of the kick return represents a bittersweet transformation, ultimately leaving a void in the cultural fabric of the sport.
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