NEW YORK — The NFL's competition committee plans to make a proposal to team owners later this month to change the rules on kickoffs in a bid to keep the play in the game rather than eliminate it over injury concerns.
The committee's proposal is expected to be completed by Monday and includes recommendations delivered by special teams coaches during a meeting Wednesday at the NFL's offices in Manhattan. The changes, if ratified by the owners when they meet later this month in Atlanta, would take effect during the upcoming 2018 season.
The proposal being formulated Wednesday bans players on the kicking team from getting a running start on their way downfield. It eliminates all forms of "wedge" blocking, where multiple blockers link together, by the receiving team. It requires eight of the 11 members of the receiving team to line up within 15 yards of the spot of the kickoff and bars hitting within those 15 yards. It keeps players on the kicking team from going in motion pre-kick.
"We want to continue to try to improve the safety of it and preserve the play," said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee. "And I think they've taken big steps toward that. . . . We know we've begun to take steps. We think the steps they've proposed really help also because it gets some of the bigger players off the kickoff team, which is something we've wanted to do for a long time."
Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub said the urgency of the situation became apparent to him when he had breakfast with Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, at the league's annual meetings in March in Orlando, Florida.
"Troy said, 'Hey, you know, the kickoff's going to disappear,' " Toub said. "He just stated it like that. I said, 'Wait a minute now. . . . Let's make some adjustments.'"
The competition committee's proposal does not incorporate the new college rule that allows the receiving team to get a touchback for a fair catch of a kickoff anywhere inside its own 25-yard line.
The committee's plan will not include the proposal made by the NFL special teams coaches that a touchback on a kickoff would be placed at the 20-yard line, rather than at the 25, if the football goes through the uprights on the kickoff. That was designed to encourage teams to kick the ball deep into the end zone rather than drop high, short kickoffs inside the 5-yard line but shy of the goal line.
"We're all concerned about the safety of the game," said Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy, a member of the competition committee. "We also realize it's part of the fabric of the game. It's exciting. One of the best things about our game is that you can catch up with the onside kick. To completely lose some of those things would be a big change to the game. But when you're staring at injury data, you've got to do something."
Murphy called the kickoff "by far the most dangerous play in the game." The injury data shows, he said, that players are five times more likely to suffer a concussion on a kickoff than on a play from the line of scrimmage. According to McKay, there were 71 concussions suffered by players on kickoffs over the past three seasons.
League leaders have said they will consider eliminating kickoffs from the sport if the play cannot be made safer.
Murphy said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the proposed changes. Asked whether it's possible to make the kickoff safe enough to avoid eliminating it, he said: "Time will tell. But I think so. You've got a lot of smart people here that coached a lot of football. I think they realize that this is a dangerous play."
But the changes must have an immediate effect, he said.
"I think it's a pretty short leash. . . . Hopefully you'll see positive results from this," Murphy said.
McKay said he believes the NFL's new helmet-hitting rule, which makes it a penalty for a player to lower his head and use his helmet to deliver a hit on an opponent, will help to eliminate some of the head injuries on kickoffs.
"I believe they've done some really good work here," McKay said. "We want to preserve the play. And this is a big step toward trying to do that. . . . I would be surprised if we don't make some progress on this play."
The idea of the proposal is to eliminate the violent collisions that take place with would-be tacklers getting a running start before crashing into blockers far downfield. Under existing rules, members of the kicking team can get a five-yard running start, and blockers can line up far enough away to turn and retreat before moving forward into their blocks. The model is to make the kickoff more like a punt, with blockers being forced to run down the field alongside the players they're attempting to block.
"Changing the alignment, I think that was the key to the whole thing," said Steve Tasker, the former special teams standout for the Buffalo Bills who participated in Wednesday's meeting. "The problem was that you had guys too far away from the kicking team. And they had a chance to gather themselves and run toward the kicking team, with the kicking team running toward them. Nobody's trying to avoid the contact. . . . That's a great start. Most fans are going to say it's pretty much the same. . . . If they really want to save it, which I think they do, this is a good start."
The NFL previously eliminated wedge blocking involving more than two members of the receiving team lined up side by side. This proposal would get rid of even the two-man wedge.
"The old rule, you had guys running at each other," Toub said. "Now you've got guys running with each other down the field. It makes a big difference. . . . It's just like a punt return. You're running down the field together. You're pushing people on the side, whereas you don't have those big collisions. That's the main thing in our proposal we tried to get done."