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Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Boot it

By Chris Jones
ESPN The Magazine

NFL Hot Read/CJones
The NFL found players suffered 40 percent fewer concussion on kickoffs in 2011.

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GREG SCHIANO, THEN the head football coach at Rutgers, sat in a darkened hospital room, watching Eric LeGrand's chest rise and fall. On Oct. 16, 2010, the defensive tackle became paralyzed from the neck down during the most dangerous play in football: the kickoff. LeGrand had been charging down the field, a 275-pound man with foot speed, when he dropped his head to make a tackle; now his head was all he could move. Because LeGrand was sedated, Schiano had a lot of time to think during his nightly visits. He listened to the machines beep and thought about physics and evolution and invention. And he came up with a plan to change football forever, by stripping kickoffs from the game for good.

"I believe that day will come," Schiano, now the rookie head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs, says today. "Unfortunately, it will probably take more players being seriously hurt. But I think there's another way to do this."

Both the NFL and the NCAA have taken recent steps to reduce the damage done by kickoffs -- which, on a per-play basis, injure players more often and more severely than any other part of the game. "The data was very clear," says Rich McKay, president of the Falcons and the chairman of the NFL's competition committee. Take two large, fast men and give them long running starts at each other, and their collisions won't be far from car wrecks. Kickoffs are particularly hard on brains. In college football, for instance, 1 in 5 injuries during kickoffs is a concussion; during other phases of play, it's 1 out of 14.

Last season, the NFL moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 and required the coverage unit to start within five yards of the ball, closing the distance between the teams. Both rules had their desired effects. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 16.4 percent of kickoffs led to touchbacks in 2010; last year it was 43.5 percent. McKay cites a far more important stat: The NFL found that players suffered 40 percent fewer concussions on kickoffs in 2011. "Were the rules a success?" he asks. "From my perspective, it's not even a debate."

The NCAA followed suit this season, incorporating the NFL's changes and adding one more: After a touchback, the ball is now spotted on the 25-yard line rather than the 20. "The odds are that receivers will want to take a knee," says Rogers Redding, a longtime official who also sits on the NCAA's rules committee. There's what Redding calls "a standing tension" between the game we love and player safety, and our modern, muted kickoffs have become a literal expression of that tension. "We're going to come down on the side of player safety," Redding says. "We have to."

Devin Hester, the record-breaking return man for the Bears, lines up on the other side. He chooses what football was. "They might as well just give us a flag and a T-shirt," he says. "They're taking away some of the best plays of the game." When Hester talks about returning the football -- about the field being a series of holes, opening and closing in instants -- there's something compelling and beautiful about it. Before I started reporting this column, the idea of eliminating kickoffs seemed impossible to me.

But there's a different tenor to someone like Schiano. "I don't know if you can appreciate what it's like until something really bad happens to one of your kids," he says. "The guys who do know, you can hear it in their voice."

I can hear it in Schiano's voice, and now I am with him. Football will always be dangerous -- witness Tulane's Devon Walker and his broken neck -- but there are ways to make it less so. Schiano wants to see all kickoffs replaced by punts. They're statistically much safer, because the two lines are nose to nose. To account for the onside kick, Schiano would give teams the option of taking a fourth-and-15 from their own 30. The odds of converting a first down would roughly match those of a team recovering its kick.

For a game steeped in tradition, it's a radical proposal. It's also a game in crisis, and all those hours in that hospital room brought Schiano, and us, to a place where we might make football better as well as safer. With the potential for blocks and fakes, punts have always been more exciting than kickoffs -- never mind the inevitable waves of fourth-and-15 strategy sessions and barroom debates. There's even a ready name for that big play, the single down that could, and should, change football as we know it. We could call it a LeGrand.

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