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CFL must be cautious with kickoff question

Mario Alford Saskatchewan Roughriders Mario Alford - The Canadian Press

Football has a kickoff problem.

Anyone who watched the Super Bowl and saw 13 kickoffs, each one sailing through the end zone untouched, can understand why.

The NFL has been purposely diminishing the role of kickoffs for several years now due to the high rate of injuries that occur on returns, championing player safety to the degree that the play has almost become irrelevant.

Just 22 per cent of kickoffs were returned in the NFL this past season, an all-time low thanks to a new rule that allowed teams to fair catch a kickoff and start with possession at the 25-yard line.

It appears, however, that the pendulum may have swung too far. The early off-season has been sprinkled with stories about the NFL getting serious about restoring the return game in some way, shape or fashion, including the consideration of adopting the XFL’s kickoff model, where the coverage and return teams line up five yards apart and no one can move until the ball is fielded.

Last month at the combine, NFL vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent promised something would be done this off-season to address what has become a “ceremonial play.”

The CFL has been watching all of this play out as it goes through its own examination of kickoffs this off-season. It’s a topic that first hit the agenda during the January league meetings in Nashville and is believed to being revisited this week in Winnipeg at meetings ahead of the CFL combine.

This rule-change conversation isn’t like other ones of recent off-seasons, where the focus has been on enhancing entertainment value by adding offence and game flow. This is about trying to make the game safer without destroying the unique place returns have in Canadian football.

The league has stated that its injury data conclusively shows that kickoffs have a significantly higher rate of injury than plays that occur on downs.

The dilemma for the CFL decision-makers runs deeper than it did in the NFL because of the role kickoffs have always played in the Canadian game. The wider and longer field, plus the single point for end-zone kneel-downs, serve to make kickoffs a significantly bigger part of the game in Canada than the U.S.

As such, returners have been among some of the most popular players in the game. For a lot of CFL fans, the return game and that way it authentically distinguishes Canadian football from the American version, is important.

So it’s not as easy as simply getting out an eraser and doing away with such a critical aspect of the game in one swoop. In that sense, the NFL experience is a cautionary tale.

Plus, football is like an ecosystem. Alter one thing and there are going to be ripples of change elsewhere.

For example, the CFL has boasted about its increase in scoring since the pandemic. How would eliminating returns and return touchdowns affect that trend? What impact would altering the role of kickoffs have on the development of players who get valuable reps on special teams?

Though the CFL’s rules committee did not release its agenda for this week’s meetings, it is believed they are discussing a couple of possibilities related to kickoffs.

One would be to reduce the number of kickoffs by giving teams the option of scrimmaging from their own 40-yard line instead of receiving a kickoff after surrendering a touchdown.

Under such a change, the only guaranteed kickoffs would be to open the game and the second half. After that, it would be up to the receiving teams after each major score.

It’s a choice CFL teams already have after surrendering a field goal. Overwhelmingly they take the ball at the 40, doing so more than 96 per cent of the time last season.

Understanding that coaches would make the same choice after touchdowns means cutting hundreds of returns from a season, and with it dozens of potentially explosive plays.

The other alternative is to adopt a version of the XFL model, which maintains the same number of kickoffs but eliminates the high-speed collisions associated with the play.

But based on its use in the defunct XFL, where big returns were rare, it would also eliminate most of the big plays associated with CFL kickoffs.

The CFL is trying to thread the needle here, achieving the goal of making the game safer without altering an important aspect of the sport that makes the Canadian game unique. There’s no easy answer on how to do that.

There’s also no pressure to solve this immediately, and there’s certainly an awareness of the danger of getting it wrong.

Whatever the CFL decides to do or not do this week in Winnipeg, this may be a matter best studied and solved over more than just one off-season.