Steve Tasker is 50 and has been retired from the NFL for 15 years.
Tasker was one of the greatest special-teams players in league history as a kickoff returner, and, more notably, on kick coverage. He loved covering kicks, which he calls “a train wreck of a play,” loved it so much that he used to say the world would be a better place if everyone got to cover a kickoff once a week. He compares it to charging up a hill to take it in battle, to running headlong as a child. The wild, reckless abandon of the play speaks to men in their early 20s, Tasker says, striking a deep emotional chord that resonates with him still.
And he would prefer that nobody ever has to do it again.
Tasker, still a Buffalo legend for how he covered kickoffs, is one of the most unlikely proponents of eliminating kickoffs and their peril from the NFL, and almost certainly the most insightful. The time and distance from his playing days, and his job as an analyst for CBS Sports, have allowed him to take the long view of the job.
“The thing they’ll miss is the tradition of it,” Tasker said. “You say ‘We’ll kick things off.’ It’s an expression in our vocabulary. The coin flip – what happens to that? There are little small ripples that will change things.
”By the same token, we’ll have in 15 years an entirely new generation of football fans that won’t remember what it’s like. Kickoffs will probably go away, and I don’t think too many people will miss it.“
He added: “I regret that some guys won’t be able to experience it. But now that I’m removed from it, I understand, too, you can live without. It’s just not worth it. As fun as it was, as liberating and invigorating as it was, life is long and hard, but you don’t need to shorten it.”
That is the crux of the balancing act NFL officials grapple with in the name of player safety. Football has never been as tradition-bound as baseball, but when team owners and commissioner Roger Goodell have mentioned publicly in the last year the idea of radically altering the kickoff – especially adopting an idea formulated by Tampa Bay Coach Greg Schiano that would replace the kickoff with a fourth-and-15 situation from a team’s own 30, allowing the team to choose to run an offensive play or punt – the debate became a microcosm of the broader questions confronting a league in transition: When is the way the game is played altered so drastically that it is no longer the same game?
“That is a consideration,” said John Mara, the president of the Giants and the chairman of the league’s competition committee. “If at the end of day we believe by making a drastic change we could significantly reduce the number of injuries, that’s something that would outweigh tradition.”
For now, that choice does not seem imminent. The NFL usually moves deliberately when making rules changes, and Mara says he believes the league is far from having the required 24 of 32 owner votes necessary to entirely eliminate the kickoff, although he does think it is inevitable there will be more modest changes.
Once the season ends, Mara and the rest of the committee will watch tape of just about every serious injury that occurred on a kickoff return this season. The committee members will look for what caused the injury – a head-on collision versus a block, for instance – and where the hits came from.
They will also review this season’s injury data. The NFL has long said that kickoffs have the highest rate of injury of any play. When the NFL moved the kickoff line from the 30 to the 35 before the 2011 season, the percentage of touchbacks leapt from 16.4 per cent to 43.5 per cent, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And, as intended, the injury rate fell accordingly. According to NFL figures, there were 40-per-cent fewer concussions on kickoffs in 2011 than there had been in 2010. With the percentage of kickoffs resulting in touchbacks increasing this season – it stands at 45.2 per cent through Week 14 – the league will hope that injuries have dropped again.
Then, Mara said, he would want to seek opinions from coaches and others around the league on what incremental modifications could be made to make kickoffs safer, without eliminating them. He will get an earful. The Jets special-teams coach Mike Westhoff has already spoken to some league officials about his idea: Make the receiving team put eight men up – there are now only five or six – and only three back to receive the kick. That would force blockers to engage much earlier, eliminating the running starts that build speed and slowing down the collisions. Blockers would instead run down the field side by side with those covering the kick, as happens on punts.
“You could still have the onside kick, still have kickoffs, still have chances of return, still have scheming, still have plays,” Westhoff said. “But you eliminate some of the violent collisions because contact is made sooner and they are more adjacent to one another. If the statistics are overwhelming, maybe it’s time for a change, but adapt rather than go from A to Z. To throw the play out? I am adamantly opposed to it.”
Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes would take Westhoff’s proposal even further, putting 10 blockers up near the ball. He also advocates eliminating the two-man wedge; the league eliminated three-, four– and five-man wedges several years ago. Arizona kicker Jay Feely suggests restricting the size of the players who could stay back to block for returns.
Feely said that removing kickoffs would alter the integrity of the game, because they play such an integral part in establishing field position. And he wonders if the NFL floated the idea Schiano came up with after Eric LeGrand, Schiano’s player at Rutgers, was paralyzed on a kick return, specifically to turn the tide of opinion against it.
”My take is if you talk about a proposition that is pretty radical like Schiano’s proposition, then when you go to something more reasonable, everyone will have incentive to accept it,“ Feely said.
Perhaps that is what the NFL intended. Whatever tinkering the league decides on, it is even possible it would try out changes in preseason games, the way the it has experimented in previous years with having an extra official on the field.
Tasker, though, warns against thinking the game is so sacred that it cannot change, pointing back to the era of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had to force reforms on football to save it because it was facing a safety crisis. Now it is facing one again, and in deciding the fate of the kickoff, the NFL may encounter much of the same resistance to a culture change it did during the nascent years of the league.
“They change the rules a lot, and I think there is only so much you can modify the game until it turns into a different sport,” said David Wilson, the Giants returner and running back who last Sunday had 227 yards and a touchdown on four returns. “The kickoff is how games start. Taking that out would be like taking the tipoff out of basketball.”