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.
Even when the kick returner catches the ball, his best decision usually is to take a knee in the end zone so his team's offense can start at its 20.
Kickoffs have become mostly a meaningless and boring ritual. Some people in the NFL want to get rid of the kickoff entirely and replace it with a punt, a less-dangerous play. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano likes this idea. He's said in the past he would replace kickoffs with punts and replace onside kicks with a fourth-and-15 from the "kicking" team's 30-yard line.
Raiders coach Dennis Allen disagrees.
"I'd hate to see that play being taken out of the game," Allen said. "It's an exciting part of the game. I think the league has done a good job of changing some of the rules on the kickoff to eliminate some of the violent collisions and some of the injuries."
"Some" being the operative word Allen used. There is nothing the NFL can do to make kickoffs or football in general completely safe.
"Injury is inherent to the sport," said Fred vonAppen, the 49ers' special teams coach from 1983 through 1986. "It's a collision sport. On kickoffs, there will be some hits that are unfavorable to the human body. It's almost unavoidable to keep your head out of contact. You run and hit with your shoulder but there will be incidental contact with your head."
True, kickoffs are controversial. Do they enrich football?
Kickoffs give football structure and differentiate it from all other team sports. Football games start with a kickoff and a full-speed collision. No other team sport starts that violently and that's fitting, because no other team sport is as violent as football. The collision is one of the best parts of the kickoff.