The vanishing kickoff return

Here is my Sunday feature on kickoffs in the NFL. This feature appears in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Sunday sports section.

ALAMEDA — The most exciting and the most dangerous play in football, the kickoff, is disappearing.

It used to be the kicker kicked off from his 30-yard line, 10 kickoff coverage players lined up way behind the kicker and took big running starts, the kick returner caught the ball and ran behind a two- or three-man wedge — huge bull-dozing players holding hands and moving forward like a Panzer tank sweep — and everyone collided full-speed at the 20 or 25 yard line.

Two years ago, the NFL banned the wedge, restricted the run-up of coverage players and moved the spot of the kick forward from the 30- to the 35-yard line, sensible changes to make kickoffs safer.

Today, this is what kickoffs look like most of the time: Special teams jog onto the field. The kicker blasts the ball way out of the end zone. The returner turns his head and watches the ball fly past. Special teams jog off the field.

On rare occasions, the kicker fails to kick the ball beyond the end zone and the returner catches the ball and runs with it, but there always seems to be a penalty for holding or an illegal block in the back. Without the wedge, kickoffs no longer are about power. They’re about speed, and the field is wide open. It’s hard to keep a return game clean when the field is wide open because someone tends to get out of position and that leads to penalties, and penalties make the play frustrating.

Even when the kick returner catches the ball, his best decision usually is to take a knee in the end zone so his team’s offense can start at its 20.

Kickoffs have become mostly a meaningless and boring ritual. Some people in the NFL want to get rid of the kickoff entirely and replace it with a punt, a less-dangerous play. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano likes this idea. He’s said in the past he would replace kickoffs with punts and replace onside kicks with a fourth-and-15 from the “kicking” team’s 30-yard line.

Raiders coach Dennis Allen disagrees.

“I’d hate to see that play being taken out of the game,” Allen said. “It’s an exciting part of the game. I think the league has done a good job of changing some of the rules on the kickoff to eliminate some of the violent collisions and some of the injuries.”

“Some” being the operative word Allen used. There is nothing the NFL can do to make kickoffs or football in general completely safe.

“Injury is inherent to the sport,” said Fred vonAppen, the 49ers’ special teams coach from 1983 through 1986. “It’s a collision sport. On kickoffs, there will be some hits that are unfavorable to the human body. It’s almost unavoidable to keep your head out of contact. You run and hit with your shoulder but there will be incidental contact with your head.”

True, kickoffs are controversial. Do they enrich football?

Kickoffs give football structure and differentiate it from all other team sports. Football games start with a kickoff and a full-speed collision. No other team sport starts that violently and that’s fitting, because no other team sport is as violent as football. The collision is one of the best parts of the kickoff.

“It adds intensity to the sport,” Raiders special teamer Phillip Adams said. “I think starting the game by just lining up at the 20-yard line would be boring.”

Banning the kickoff would be like banning other exciting moments in sports like the left hook in boxing or the triple in baseball. Imagine an umpire holding a giant stop sign at second base and yelling, “Don’t push it, mister!”

Kickoffs are chaos in a hyper-structured sport where players follow orders like soldiers.

“I feel like when you’re back there returning kicks, there is a lot of freedom,” said Jeremy Stewart, who has returned kicks for the Raiders and Stanford.

Unlike a wide receiver who has to run a specific route and may not even get the ball, the kick returner gets to run wherever he wants and is in control of the entire play.

“It’s like being a sniper compared to a regular soldier,” Stewart said.

It’s like a Kamikaze mission. It’s like a jail break through a minefield across enemy lines. Football always comes down to war metaphors. When you see a kick returner run through the entire opposing team and score a touchdown, it’s like witnessing a miracle, like witnessing David kill Goliath.

Devin Hester is the ultimate David. He will likely be a Hall of Famer because kickoffs exist. If they didn’t exist, he probably never would have been a professional football player.

“Look at ‘The Play’ from the Cal-Stanford game when the band rushed the field,” vonAppen said. “I was on the Stanford sideline. I’m painfully reminded of this play every year, but it was one of the great plays in football history, college or pro. If you take away kickoffs, you take away the possibility of a play ever matching or topping that one.”

The NFL is more concerned with player safety than topping the Cal-Stanford play, obviously. And maybe the imagination reads more into the symbolism of the kickoff than really exists. But here’s a basic question: How could anyone start the game without it?

Grant Cohn writes the Inside the 49ers blog at 49ers.pressdemocrat.com and two weekly sports columns for PressDemocrat.com.

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