Even when the NFL institutes a rule designed to reduce concussions, it can’t shake the perception it doesn’t care what players and coaches think.
The league took a step toward eliminating kickoffs this week by enhancing the touchback rule for a one-year trial with a priority on player safety. The receiving team will now get the ball at its own 25 with a fair catch of a kickoff anywhere behind that yard line.
Some of the league’s most prominent coaches criticized the decision.
“My thing is, where does it stop? I mean, you start taking pieces and -- you know, we’ll see how this goes, but you don’t want to take too many pieces away or you’re going to be playing flag football,” Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
Reid, a two-time Super Bowl champion, isn’t known for stirring the pot. He’s shied away from sharing controversial opinions throughout his career as he enters his 25th season as a head coach.
Clearly, he hates this rule change. He’s not alone.
“We had a chance to weigh in on that with all the special teams coaches,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We had a long talk and discussion about that. We weren’t for it. We voted against it. We think it’s going to create more high-speed head trauma than not having it in there. That’s our position on it. But we’ll see. They want to give it a shot and take a look at it. We’ll give it a shot and take a look at it. So it’s in and because it’s in, we support it, but we thought there were better ideas.”
Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell didn’t hold back.
“I’m highly frustrated. It’s very frustrating, but look, I don’t make the rules,” Campbell said. “That’s the new rule and then we’ll live by the new rule. We’ll find a way to adjust, adapt and still get what we want. That’s what you’ve got to do. But I hate that we continue to take away from the game. That’s what really worries me, that we just, we continue to bleed this league (dry). If we’re not careful, it’s not going to replenish at one point. But listen, it’s the rules and we’ll make do, and we’ll adjust.”
Chiefs All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce called it “absolutely stupid.”
“I don’t think this is making the game safer. I think it’s making it more boring and taking a lot of excitement out of the game’s opening play. This is whack,” Travis Kelce said on his Podcast with older brother, Jason.
Jason Kelce, an All-Pro center for the Philadelphia Eagles, wondered what’s next.
“We’re just getting closer and closer to getting rid of special teams,” Jason Kelce said. “I mean, it’s like the only thing left now is punt. When is somebody not gonna fair catch it and take the ball to 25? Unless it’s just a really bad kick, right? I don’t know.”
NFL data says concussions on kickoffs occur more than twice as often as on plays from scrimmage, and that rate has risen significantly over the last two years. The league predicts the return rate for kickoffs in 2023 will drop from 38% to 31%, and the rate of concussions on the sport’s most dangerous play will be reduced by 15%.
“I’m for whatever makes the game safer, so if that’s a play where more injuries are occurring, more head injuries are occurring, more head impact is occurring, I have no right to stand up here and say, ‘we need to be doing more of it,’ if that’s what we’re trying to avoid because obviously player safety and health comes first,” Las Vegas Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said.
Harbaugh indicated it’ll lead to more head injuries, though there’s no data yet to prove it. Teams may attempt more squib kicks, which could potentially create more collisions. Only one of the 19 concussions that occurred on kickoffs last year happened to the returner.
One day before owners passed the new kickoff rule, they voted to allow flexible scheduling for Thursday night games on Amazon Prime Video, for Weeks 13-17 only and with at least 28 days’ notice given to the affected teams. The motive is to try to ensure viewers will see a more interesting game.
Players and coaches have long argued against playing on short rest, but Thursday night games won’t go away because they’re too profitable. The league has a $113 billion deal with Amazon.
NFL data says fewer injuries occur during Thursday games than Sunday games. Still, players argue playing on three days’ rest takes a physical toll that may not be reflected in injury stats.
“To flex a game back to Thursday night, to me, is just abusive, and I am adamantly opposed to it,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara said before 24 owners voted in the new rule.
Player safety matters when it doesn't impact the bottom line.