Can the kickoff be saved? New rules give Packers' Ron Zook hope
GREEN BAY - When the National Football League’s oligarchy convened for the annual meeting at a swanky Florida hotel earlier this year, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy foreshadowed impending changes designed to insulate the kickoff from its exhilaratingly violent self.
Murphy, speaking on the back patio of The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, described the kickoff as “by far the most dangerous play in the game.”
“Just with concussions, a player is five times as likely to suffer a concussion on a kickoff as he is on a passing or a running play," Murphy said in late March. "So we know that information is out there. Having the touchback at the (25-yard line), now 60 percent of the kickoffs are, you know, not returned. So we’ve reduced the number of returns but we haven’t really done anything to make the play safer.
“We’re going to bring together, over the next few weeks, head coaches and special teams coaches and really take a look at the kickoff with a sense that if you don’t make changes to make it safer, we’re going to do away with it. It’s that serious."
Two months after Murphy’s comments, at another set of meetings, the league’s collection of owners approved several rule changes that will go into effect for the 2018 season. Those changes included the following:
» The elimination of two-man wedge blocking by the return team.
» The elimination of a running start by members of the kicking team.
» A requirement that eight of the 11 players on the receiving team be lined up within 15 yards of the ball in an area known as the “setup zone.”
» The elimination of blocking in the “setup zone” until the ball is touched or hits the ground.
» A requirement that the kicking team align five players on either side of the ball to prevent overloads that trigger free runners downfield.
The new set of rules, instituted this fall, will be reevaluated next spring to determine if the primary goal of reducing the number of injuries — especially concussions — was, in fact, accomplished.
“I think it’s going to be interesting,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said during organized team activities. “I think there’s a lot of people wondering about how it’s going to be. Thankfully, we have at least what we think it’s going to be now, the rules and so forth, (so) we’re able to work on it. You’re probably going to see, in my opinion — it’s just my opinion — but more returns.”
Zook believes the elimination of the running start for the coverage team will benefit the return team, which may or may not solve the league’s injury problem. If members of the coverage team need a split second of additional time to get downfield, Zook envisions returners being even more likely to bring the ball out in hopes of igniting their offense with better field position after a big return.
Will the changes to alignment and blocking requirements be effective enough to mitigate injury risk if the number of returns increases? Or is a potential uptick in the number of returns — which may yield more injuries — an unfortunate byproduct of a well-intentioned rule?
“They’re trying to take the high-speed rate, peak speed on a rail and the big collisions out," Zook said. "When I say I think there’s going to be more returns, that’s Ron Zook’s opinion. There may not be (more returns). I just think the fact that the kickoff team is not going to be as far down the field when the returners catch the ball, I think people may have a tendency to maybe bring it out.”
Zook was not one of the special teams coaches who attended the league meetings to exchange ideas with owners and fellow coaches. However, Zook said he participated in a conference call in which a number of potential solutions were discussed. He also spent time with Murphy and Maurice Drayton, the Packers’ assistant special teams coach, to review film and talk through the issues so Murphy could use their feedback during meetings with the competition committee, of which Murphy is a member.
By this time next year, owners will have enough data from the 2018 season to understand just how risky kickoffs are across the league. If things go well and this year’s adaptions actually reduce the number of serious injuries, then the idea that kickoffs should be removed from football will be tabled — at least for a while.
But if things go poorly, and injury statistics don’t improve, perhaps the kickoff will be erased altogether, just as Murphy suggested was possible.
"I don’t think they are trying to phase it out," Zook said. " ... It’s an exciting play — but it is one that we have to make sure that we’re making it safer. And I think with all the engineering and all the things that they’re doing, they’re going to accomplish that."
NOTE: Mandatory minicamp practices scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday next week will begin at 11:30 a.m. and are open to the public (weather permitting). Coach Mike McCarthy hasn't said whether veterans with five or more years of NFL experience will be excused, as in the last two years.