Keeping Score

The NFL Kickoff Debate: Why Teams May Take More Risk Without Them

In a TIME cover story, Roger Goodell talked about eliminating kickoffs. How that move could change the game

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In this week’s TIME cover story, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expresses interest in a proposal to eliminate kickoffs. Kickoffs produce more concussion risk than punts, since players charge at each other during kickoffs, while on punts, they bunch at the line of scrimmage and run down the field together, toward the player making the return. “It’s an off-the-wall idea,” Goodell says. “It’s different and makes you think differently. It did me.”

Goodell’s comments have sparked plenty of debate. The proposal was first put forth by Tampa Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, who saw one of his players — Eric LeGrand — get paralyzed on a kickoff return in 2010, when he coached LeGrand at Rutgers. The “Schiano Rule:” instead of a kicking off, a team receives the ball at its own 30, and runs a 4th and 15 play from scrimmage. The team would most likely punt, since a failed 15-yard conversion — a risky play — would result in stellar field position for the opposition. So in essence, punts replace kickoffs.

And in essence, if a team is desperate to retain possession, a 4th-and-15 play would replace the onside kick. While I personally look forward to onside kicks — they just have some goofy appeal — most fans would probably rather see a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning on the field trying to rescue their team, rather than a kicker attempting to bounce the ball into the air. (Ever see that list of all-time greatest onside kicks? It doesn’t exist for a reason).

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So if a 4th-and-15 replaced the onside kick, would more teams try to retain possessions after scores? The folks at STATS, the sports analytics company, passed along some helpful numbers. From 2010-2012, according to STATS, onside kicks had a success rate of 16% (26 for 165). From 2000-2011, teams that went for it on 4th-and-15, while trailing with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, had a 28% success rate (5 for 18). So yes, the 4th and 15 would appear to give team’s a better chance of retaining possession, and keep games closer and more exciting.

Some caveats: STATS went back over 10 years to find a bigger 4th and 15 sample size — and it was still pretty small. And its onside kick rate includes instances where teams try surprise its opponent earlier in the game. If STATS only included late-game onside kicks, where the opponents know it’s coming, the success rate likely would be lower.

In any case, these numbers show that if this rule change would take place, teams might have an incentive to take more risk. And wouldn’t that be fun for fans?

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