NEW YORK -- The kickoff isn't going away for the 2018 NFL season, but it will look different.
An unprecedented collaboration of owners, head coaches, position coaches, medical people and an active player and a union official took a significant step toward preserving one of the game's more recognizable yet dangerous plays Wednesday morning at league headquarters by finding common ground on a proposed rules change to make the play safer.
The final draft will be completed by the end of the week and presented to clubs for review on Monday. The owners will then vote on it later this month at their Spring League Meeting in Atlanta.
"I'm optimistic we've made changes that will make the game safer," said Chiefs special teams coach Dave Taub. "It's crucial that everyone was involved. Football is at an inflection point. Either we make the changes we have to make to make the game safer or there will be negative consequences for all of us. Everybody realizes this is what's needed."
While the proposed changes might not appear dramatic to the naked eye, they are to the people involved with the game. Among the differences: There will be no running start or pre-kick motion by cover teams and no wedge blocks by return squads. Also, there will be a 15-yard, non-contact zone from the spot of the kick, with the return team required to have a minimum of eight players lined up 15 yards from the ball. The expectation is that this will not only take some of the bigger linemen off the field because there will be a premium on agility and speed to operate in space, but also eliminate some of the violent collisions on the back end of the play. As described, the coverage will resemble what's normally seen on a punt than a "traditional" kickoff.
Packers president Mark Murphy admitted the kickoff is on a "short leash" because of the dangers associated with it. He said the data shows that players are five times more likely to sustain a concussion on kickoffs than a play from scrimmage. Competition committee chairman Rich McKay said players sustained 71 concussions on kickoffs the last three seasons, with at least a third stemming from wedge plays.
"We want to preserve the play, and this is a big first step to doing that," McKay said.
That proposed changes were achieved with input from every level. Among those attending the session were owners Dr. John York of the 49ers and George McCaskey of the Bears; head coaches Anthony Lynn of the Chargers, John Harbaugh of the Ravens and Mike Tomlin of the Steelers; and nine special teams coaches, including Darren Rizzi of the Dolphins.
"Sometimes there's a perception that special teams coaches are only concerned about keeping the kickoff to keep our job," Rizzi said. "This wasn't about that. It was about making the game safer, making the play safer and not taking the foot out of football. It's easy for the coaches to be stubborn and say, 'Oh, keep it the way it is.' In my opinion those days are over. We have to keep moving forward, not just this year but every year. We have to keep asking, 'What can we tweak this year? What can we improve?' The whole collaboration by the whole room was pretty cool."
On his way out of the basement conference room, Harbaugh stopped and thanked York for his participation and words of support.
"It's very gratifying to see us all working together, and I think there's going to be a better outcome because of it," Dr. York said. "We're serious about player health and safety, and you just can't do it if it's only one group. You've got to have ownership, the coaches and the Players Association -- and it's got to be based on(medical) data."
"It was amazing having all the different groups in here, actually fixing things, coming up with common-sense things that actually are going to work," said Harbaugh, a former special teams coach. "I've never seen this type of collaboration before. To me it's the way it should be done."
"Overall, we kept the kickoff in the game and, I think, made it safer," said Lynn, who owed much of his pro playing career to special teams. "That was the whole objective from my standpoint."
Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations, said his goal was to keep the kickoff while make it safer and, potentially, more exciting. The belief is that there will be more space for returners to run, creating opportunities for big plays. There also will be more one-on-one blocks, which could create not only more creases for big gains, but fewer injuries -- particularly those stemming from players lowering their heads when crashing into a wedge of blockers.
"It's going to give guys a better chance to execute good, solid football technique," said Harbaugh. "So blockers are going to be in position to square up on blockers and make good football blocks. There won't be the awkward angles as much as there were before. There will be fewer on-a-rail-type injuries, too -- and more returns, more cleaner returns. That's good for the game, too. You better get a returner."
Those are words few thought possible a few months ago. But the kickoff lives on. For now.