KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2009. Nor have they surrendered a kickoff return for a touchdown since 2010.
But the idea being floated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the league considering the elimination of kickoffs as a safety measure is not a popular one among players around the league and in the Chiefs’ locker room.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” said Javier Arenas, the Chiefs’ primary punt returner who also has returned 50 kickoffs in his three NFL seasons. “How long has football been in existence? It’s taking away a part of the game. It’s like taking away free throws in basketball … It’s a crucial part of the game …
“The Super Bowl, opening kickoff, a gazillion cameras are flashing … Kickoffs are not the only play you get injured on.”
Goodell brought up the idea of eliminating kickoffs at the suggestion of Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, who as coach at Rutgers saw one of his players, Eric LeGrand, suffer paralysis as a result of blocking on a kickoff return in 2010. (Schiano is also the coach who has ordered his defense to try and hit quarterbacks on game-ending kneel-downs.)
The league already has tweaked the kicking game by moving the spot of kickoffs up from the 30 to 35, which creates more touchbacks, and has tried to eliminate violent collisions by outlawing the four-man blocking wedge and by changing the onside kick alignment, all in the interest of safety.
“The way this league is going, we might be going to flag football soon,” said Shaun Draughn, the Chiefs’ primary kickoff returner, who returned one kickoff last Sunday at Cleveland while watching four touchbacks sail deep into the end zone. “The last couple games I haven’t even been able to get my hands on it but once. But hopefully they don’t do away with it.”
The topic of kickoffs will be discussed next spring by the competition committee and at the owners’ meetings. One proposal to replace kickoffs would give the scoring team the ball at its own 30 with the option of punting or attempting to convert a fourth-and-15 offensive play in order to keep possession.
“You’d have to add another specialist to the roster,” Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt said, contemplating the idea of having to double his punting efforts. “Instead of punting 90 times a year, you’d be punting 180 times… I don’t think anybody has ever done that.”
Some see the proposal to eliminate kickoffs as a public relations gesture by the league because of the lawsuits it is facing regarding concussions.
“I don’t see the kickoff as the culprit of NFL injuries,” said Chiefs special teams standout Andy Studebaker. “Sure, it’s a high-impact play, but it’s also a part of the excitement of football. Field position is important, so to eliminate it, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the game.”
A year ago, after the kickoff spot was moved from the 30 to the 35, the number of kickoff returns and kickoff returns per game shrank markedly. In 2010, when the ball was kicked off from the 30-yard line, 80.1 percent were returned, an average of 7.9 per game. Last year, the number slipped to 53.4 percent, an average of 5.4 per game.
Also touchbacks skyrocketed from 16.4 percent of kickoffs in 2010 to 43.5 percent in 2011. Consequently, only nine kickoffs were returned for touchdowns in 2011 compared to 23 in 2010.
This year, return men deciding to return kicks from deeper in the end zone have been a little more daring. Though league-wide, 47.1 percent of the kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, already there have been 11 returns for touchdowns.
“I would be very, very against eliminating the kickoff,” said Chiefs receiver/running back Dexter McCluster, who has returned 51 kickoffs in his three-year career. “It takes away that one opportunity that might be a game-changer, a game-breaker as far as the return team getting a touchdown or the kickoff team getting a forced fumble, and maybe getting the ball back.
“Football is contact. You can’t escape it, no matter what. I’m glad they are trying to make it safer, but at the end of the day, this is the game we love, and we all grew up with this physical game. We know the dangers of it, and I really think they should rethink the situation.”
The players who perform the dangerous tasks of covering and blocking on kickoff returns feel the same way.
“There are guys in this league who make their living off offense, there are guys who make their living off defense, and there are guys who make their living off special teams,” said linebacker Edgar Jones. “I’ve been one of those guys. I feel you’re already, by moving the kickoff to the 35, taking away opportunities from big-time returners like (Cleveland’s) Josh Cribbs and (Seattle’s) Leon Washington …
“I understand the safety part of it … and the league has done a great job as far as keeping us protected, but football is a game where injuries are going to happen.”
Even if the kickoff is eliminated, Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson said last week that he’s not sure how adding more punts makes football safer, especially with the increased number of touchbacks already on kickoffs.
“This doesn’t seem to address what they say is dangerous in the first place,” Dawson said. “Punts are just as violent … There are not going to be any touchbacks. How many times have you seen a punt returner waiting for the ball and the gunner just kill him?”
Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop is tied with Dawson for ninth in the league in touchbacks with 22 of his 51 kickoffs, for 46.8 percent. He said there were other ways of reducing injuries such as having the coverage unit start 10 yards behind the ball.
“That way, they’re running down the field, but they’re not running at each other as much,” Succop said. “It would make it more like a punt, and it would still have the excitement of the kickoff. So much momentum can be won or lost on a kickoff. If you eliminate that, you lose a big part of the game. It will be bad for the game and bad for the fans.”
Succop, in fact, might have offered the best argument of all for keeping the kickoff.
“When you think about football,” he said, “You say, ‘It’s two days until kickoff …’ A kickoff starts the game …”
That simple reason might end the debate.