Grant Cohn: The vanishing kickoff return

  • Chicago Bears wide receiver Devin Hester (23) waits for a kickoff return during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Chicago.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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.

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