With kickoffs on their way out in college football, here’s how we should replace them

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Sooner than later, kickoffs will go by the way of leather helmets.
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The kickoff is not dead, but it’s terminal.

Last week, the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a new rule that will allow teams to fair catch any kickoff inside their 25-yard line for a touchback to the 25. The intent of the rule is clear, as kickoffs have proven to be one of the more dangerous plays in football thanks to the high-speed collisions that frequently occur during the play. The problem with this rule change is it won’t get rid of those high-speed collisions.

It may cut down on the number of sky kicks (teams kicking the ball higher into the air to force the return team to bring the ball out), but kickoff teams will still fly down the field as quickly as possible and run into players from the other team at full speed. What’s important to realize here is that this rule change is intended to cut down on injuries during kickoffs. But it’s not the short-term solution, rather the long-term payoff the NCAA is looking for here.

You see, if the NCAA were to eliminate kickoffs entirely, there would be backlash from a lot of people. Never mind that over 40 percent of current kickoffs already result in touchbacks; change can be scary, particularly when it’s swift. What these new rules will do is cause so many kickoffs to result in a touchback that eventually kick returns will be a rarity. It’s at that point that kickoffs will be removed entirely.

And, honestly, it makes sense. I love football, and kickoffs can provide some of the most exciting plays in the sport, but the truth is that if this sport is to survive long-term, changes will need to be made. Those changes are more than likely going to include the death of the kickoff.

But what will they do to replace them?

Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano suggested years ago that instead of kicking off, teams should punt following a score or attempt a fourth-and-15 play in lieu of an onside kick. There are fewer collisions on punts than you see on a typical kickoff because one team isn’t running 30 yards downfield toward the other, but instead, are running with each other. That’s an idea that could work, but I have another suggestion.

A team’s starting field position following a score by the opponent should be determined based on how the opponent scored.

It’s a simple premise and one that would be easy to implement. Here’s how it would work.

Field goal

30-yard line

Touchdown (red zone)

25-yard line

Touchdown (21-40 yards)

20-yard line

Touchdown (41+ yards)

15-yard line

Touchdown (defense / special teams) 15-yard line

With this proposal, most drives would begin at the 25-yard line just as they do now because most touchdowns are scored from within the red zone. The reason I have teams starting from worse field position following a longer touchdown is as a minor penalty for giving up a long score. While all touchdowns are worth the same on the scoreboard, they aren’t all equal, and the chance to pin your opponent deep could provide an incentive to take more shots down the field. That leads to big plays, and big plays are exciting. It’s not rocket science.

As for the field goal rule, by giving your opponent the ball at its 30-yard line following a field goal, this could lead to a shift in strategy by coaches in the sport. It could lead to coaches being more aggressive on fourth down, which in turn would lead to more exciting plays.

Would you rather watch a field goal on fourth-and-3 or see a team go for it?

Now, by eliminating the kickoff, you also eliminate the onside kick, which is a valuable play to have late in a close game. It’s an exciting play that helps lead to comebacks, and comebacks are always fun (unless they’re happening to you). I would take Schiano’s suggestion for replacing the onside kick.

Following a score, if the scoring team opted to attempt an “onside kick” — I’m not sure what we’d call it just yet, so we’ll stick with onside kick for now — it would get the ball at its 35-yard line. The team would then run a play to get to the 50-yard line for a first down. If it picked up the first down, it would keep the ball. If it didn’t get the first down, it would be treated as a typical turnover on downs with the opposing team gaining possession where the play ended. Yes, this change in the rule would eliminate the surprise onside kick, but that can’t be avoided.

I don’t know if my suggestion is a perfect solution to replacing the kickoff, but I’m not sure such an answer exists. I do believe that it’s an interesting idea and one that could lead to some changes in football strategy that could make the game a bit more exciting. In the end, that would be the best possible outcome of any change in the sport, whether the NCAA follows my suggestion or something else entirely.

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