Concerned about the number of head injuries on kickoffs, the NFL very nearly did away with the play earlier this year, before several of the league’s special-teams coaches, including the Eagles’ Dave Fipp, came up with what they hope will be a safer alternative.
“I just can’t imagine the game without it,” Fipp said. “I mean, how could you say we’re excited for opening day and the kickoff of the season if you don’t have a kickoff? Would you say, ‘We’re excited to put the ball in play?’
“My biggest concern is that we’ve changed the rules enough so that the play becomes significantly safer, not just a little bit. But also, keeping the play around. I don’t know if the rule changes can do that or not. I do know we’ve made a great effort to get it done.”
The kickoff is going to look significantly different this season. The kicking team no longer will be permitted to get a running start. Five players must line up on each side of the kicker, with two outside the numbers on each side.
Eight of the 11 players on the return team now must line up in a setup zone within 15 yards of where the ball is being kicked. Wedges have been banned.
No hitting will be allowed in the setup zone until the ball is caught or hits the ground.
The purpose of these rule changes is to eliminate full-speed, concussion-causing collisions. The thinking is that kickoffs are going to look a lot more like punts. Maybe.
No one is really sure, including the coaches.
And the league may make more changes at some point in the preseason depending on how things go in the first week or two.
“There’s still a lot of questions,” Fipp said. (Like) how much (are the new rules) going to affect guys coming down the field? How much further behind will they be without the running start? Those are things that still are hard to tell until we start playing games.
“One of the things the league is trying to take out is a real big guy hitting a real small guy. A lot of the rule changes are based on trying to promote playing a smaller, faster player and eliminate the offensive linemen being back there in the wedge taking on smaller guys.”
Because kickoffs could end up looking more like punts, Fipp is considering the possibility of using Darren Sproles on kickoffs as well as punts. Sproles did both earlier in his career with San Diego and New Orleans, but has just three kickoff returns in four seasons with the Eagles.
“That would definitely be a possibility,” Fipp said. “We’ll kind of see how that plays out.”
Most players aren’t terribly enthusiastic about the new-look kickoff.
“I don’t think it makes sense at all,” Eagles linebacker and special teams standout Kamu Grugier-Hill said. “I hate all these rule changes. I think the game’s getting real soft.
“When you play football, there’s an assumption of risk. You know there’s going to be head injuries.”
Grugier-Hill also hates the new rule penalizing any helmet-to-helmet contact.
“The way they’re showing it, I don’t know how they expect us to make solid tackles with running backs and receivers falling forward,” he said.