Thursday, August 4, 2011

Zack Follett Likely Out of NFL, Kickoffs Should Follow

After two seasons and only 17 games played, Detroit Lion Zack Follett has been released and will likely be out of the NFL for good.  Follett has been a fan favorite ever since he was drafted in 2009.  From his hard-hitting youtube reel to his supermarket antics, it was hard not to root for the guy.  Unfortunately, Follett has become one of the many victims in the NFL that have had their careers cut short due to special teams.  Before Follett, there was Eagles returner Ellis Hobbs.  Before Hobbs, there was Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand.  Injuries have varied from sore necks, to paralysis, to even death NFL rulemakers have toyed with the rules for awhile trying to protect the players.  In fact, this year will feature a couple differences from years past.  Kickoffs will be pushed forward to the 35 yard line from the 30, and players from the kicking team will only be able to get a 5-yard running start, where they got a 10-15 yard head start previously.  While this is an important step in the right direction, it is the equivalent of putting a bandaid on a spinal-cord injury.  The NFL needs to get serious about solving this problem.  They need to get rid of the kickoff. 

Now I know saying something that drastic will inevitably evoke an emotionally-strong response from many. A major change to the game of football will take a lot of thought and discussion before it is seriously considered.  Although I consider myself a football purist in many ways and have fought against many rule changes that I deemed too drastic (ie: certain roughing the passer penalties asking way too much from defenders), I have always been weary of the brutality of the kickoff.  Give it real thought.  Pretend that teams must start at the 25-yard line at the beginning of every half and after an opponent score (punts can stay).  How much worse would the game of football be?  Different? Yes.  Worse.  Not significantly enough.

There are, no doubt, downfalls to getting rid of the kickoff.  We will lose what some people consider the most exciting play in football: a kickoff return touchdown.  Without the kickoff, there is no “Music City Miracle”.  No “The Play”.  A world where the occasional trombonist isn’t trampled by a giddy cornerback-turned-returner is a scary one indeed.  But think about the actual concept of the kickoff play.  For six or seven plays a game, coaches trot out their third and fourth string linebackers and fullbacks, tells them to run at each other full speed, so that they can determine field position, which typically is somewhere between their own 20 and 30 yard line.  It seems a little archaic, doesn’t it?  Get all of the meager athletes together to do the dirty work, so the real players can be safe to play when it matters.  Players with less talent have been unfairly subjected to dangerous plays so that once in every six games, we get to see a kick return touchdown.

The biggest unintended consequence of abolishing the kickoff is the loss of the onside kick.  This, admittedly, is a tough thing to accept.  Many games that were once considered a close game, would be out of reach for the losing team.  This would, undoubtedly, make a significant percentage of games less entertaining.  My retort?  Tough.  A team that truly deserves to be in a game can do so without the luxury of the onside kick.  Losing the onside kick will be a tough pill to swallow, but given the rarity of the onside kick (in 2009, an expected onside kick was performed every 6.4 games*) and the success rate of the onside kick (around 20% when expecting an onside kick) the actual outcome of games will rarely be altered.

The new rules this year are no doubt steps in the right direction, but they will not likely end the problem.  I understand that violence and injuries are an unavoidable part of the sport.  However, kickoffs are especially dangerous and often an insignificant play.  The elimination of the kickoff would have a minor impact on the sport, but it would save the careers of hard-working players like Follett and it would save the lives of those who weren’t as lucky as him. 

*2010 data not available; source:


  1. Couldn't you simply opt to allow teams to either yield the ball at the opponent's 25 yard line or attempt the onside kick? It's not like people are rocketing at full speed during onside kicks, and both usually have their "hands" teams out for them; no linebackers with too little pay, too much muscle, and not enough brains creaming people.

  2. That's definitely a respectable compromise. Although, onside kicks are more dangerous than one may think. The receiving player often jumps very high to grab the ball, leaving him very vulnerable mid-air. A common strategy is to pulverize this guy to jar the ball loose. Rules could obviously be tweaked to avoid this.

  3. That's a fair point, but the league HAS already buckled down on tackling defenseless players (as of this league year). Any player with his feet off the ground and hands on the ball is obviously defenseless; so while yeah, you're going to get some amazing body shots, you're not going to see much 20 mph helmet-to-helmet or anyone taking out needs. You get what I'm saying though.

    All in all people are pretty used to taking body shots in football, that's one of those unavoidable "intrinsic risks." You might get a collapsed lung or a bruised rib here or there, but nothing's that's necessarily going to retire you.

  4. Sorry, meant knees* not needs.

  5. I would be hard to give up the excitement of the kickoffs returned for a touchdown. However,its a little easier when I remember how my Thanksgiving dinner was ruined in 1980. Chicago scored on the last play of the regulation to tie the score, and then scored again on the opening kickoff. Ouch! Now that hurt!

  6. You just had to bring up THAT Thanksgiving! I am still pissed off about that one.

    More on topic though, I am not sure that I can go for this and I don't think that that drastic of a change is in the cards. You can get injured on any play. Maybe more should be done on the equipment side of things to help protect players from the more serious injuries.

  7. Ty from lionsinwinter sent me here. I think you used to be in the chats during his Fireside sessions or whatever he calls them and we shared the same opinion on Lions topics. I will check this blog out even though I do not agree with this getting rid of the kickoff nonsense. But you are on a short leash.

  8. Haha. I appreciated the leniency. I knew this would be an isolating topic and considered waiting awhile to post it, but I figured this topic wouldn't be too relevant once people forgot about Follett and starting thinking about the first preseason games.