Imagine it's the spring of 2022. The NFL has just reached a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement with its players. The league is now drawing an average of $10 billion per season in digital and broadcast revenues alone, thanks in part to Netflix's streaming-rights package and Google's virtual reality products, as part of its march toward $25 billion in total revenues.
Commissioner Roger Goodell is in his final season before retirement. He has nothing to lose. It's time to get funky -- NFL style. So what does Goodell do? He makes one final, sweeping attempt to cement a legacy as ... the man who made special teams fun again.
After years of tinkering, Goodell goes all-in. He pushes the competition committee to narrow the goal posts, noting radio-frequency identification tracking data showing that 85 percent of successful field goals travel within 6 inches of the midpoint of the old goal posts. He has the extra point moved back farther, making it a 45-yard kick, and puts the two-point conversion at the 1-yard line. The moves, Goodell hopes, will further minimize routine kicks and encourage coaches to go for it more often on fourth down and utilize more two-point attempts.
And for the big reveal, he unveils a brand-"new" kickoff. It has roots in tradition but raises the efforts to make the play safer to an entirely new plane. For 2022, Goodell decrees, all kickoffs will be onside kicks.
Now, to be clear, I don't have any inside knowledge that NFL decision-makers regard the onside kick as the final stop in their decadelong tinkering with the play. I do, however, feel confident that in the next five years or so, the kickoff will evolve into something that is -- at best -- distantly related to what we know it as now.
Keep in mind that Goodell and the NFL have been tweaking the kickoff since 2011, when they moved the kickoff line to the 35-yard line from the 30. In 2016, the touchback line was brought to the 25-yard line from the 20. Both were attempts to increase touchbacks, decrease returns and minimize injuries.
That didn't work.
There were 71 concussions on kickoffs between 2015 and 2017. This spring, special-teams coaches redesigned the play to look more like a punt. They hoped it would reduce both touchbacks and concussion rates. But the working theory here is that it won't be enough to satisfy data-driven decision-makers.
The next step would be to shift to a more creative alignment. One possibility is the "Greg Schiano rule," which the competition committee discussed but dismissed this spring. The rule -- developed by Schiano after watching one of his Rutgers players, Eric LeGrand, become paralyzed on a kickoff -- gives the scoring team the ball on its own 30-yard line. The scoring team can either punt the ball to its opponent or try to gain 15 yards with one offensive play to retain possession. (Another way of looking at it: The scoring team gets fourth-and-15 at its own 30 after a score.)
But the guess here is that the NFL's mostly conservative head coaches would generally punt and rarely elect to go for the 15 yards. Fans would quickly grow bored with the addition of 10 punts per game. So by 2022 or so, the NFL landscape could quite possibly be ripe for a more radical and entertaining change.
The all-onside kick idea isn't as wild as you think, at least if you follow the thought process that could get the NFL there. The exact wording would require a significant disincentive for kicking long, perhaps a 15-yard penalty and a replay for any kick that travels 25 yards beyond the original line. But this solution addresses every question mark that the NFL has faced since it began fiddling with the play.
It's more entertaining, given the possible outcomes. A player would get the ball near midfield with a chance to score quickly, a fair swap for the undeniable but currently only occasional long kickoff return.
Naturally, it retains the opportunity for teams trailing late in a game to vie for an extra possession.
And according to data that has driven many of the recent changes, the onside kick is much safer than the traditional kickoff. Between 2015 and 2017, only two of the 71 concussions suffered on kickoffs occurred during an onside kick. It's true that onside kicks are relatively rare, but if you've followed the approach the NFL took to rule-making this offseason, you know that concussion totals have been a strong guiding force.
To be fair, not everyone thinks an onside kick is objectively safer despite the numbers. Kansas City Chiefs special-teams coordinator Dave Toub, in fact, said of the data: "I would think that there would have been more [concussions]."
He added: "I know that the collisions are huge. Guys are looking up for the ball. Could that be a matter of luck? As a coach, that play really scares you."
An all-onside kickoff is far from a certainty. But what is clear is that we haven't seen the end of the NFL's kickoff tinkering. The league has used most of the easy options. Future changes will, by necessity, be more complicated.
Would I bet the world that the NFL will implement this option in 2022? No. Would I bet that it will follow a similar thought process -- to find an alternative that addresses safety, entertainment and allows teams to regain possession late in a game -- and land on something that is relatively inconceivable to think of now? Absolutely. Stay tuned.