June 15, 2011
Sorry, traditionalists: If you were hoping Rutgers' coach Greg Schiano's recent proposal to eliminate kickoffs would land on deaf ears and slink back into the ether without a second thought, it looks like you're going to be very disappointed. The Schiano Plan — which would replace all kickoffs with a 4th-and-15 situation that would give the kicking team the option of punting or going for a first down from its own 30-yard line — has already gained some traction in the media, and now has the endorsement of another high profile head coach, Georgia's Mark Richt, who told an audience Tuesday that he wouldn't mind seeing the kickoff go, either:
"It is violent," Richt said Tuesday at the Peach State Pigskin Preview. "It is very, very physical. You've got a bunch of guys that can run fast and are strong and they are not afraid, it's kind of a manhood thing. No one's going to back down."
"The part about not kicking off I think if it went to a vote, I would vote for no kickoff also," Richt said. "I would just place the ball at the 23-yard line or whatever the average has been. I'm sure the defensive coaches would want it on the 18. Offensive coaches would want it on the 30."
Like Schiano, Richt's qualms about the violence of kickoffs comes from direct experience: In 2003, UGA return man Decory Bryant suffered a broken neck during a return, which ended his football career. Schiano's proposal was in direct response to the hit that felled one of his players, Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed from the neck down while covering a kickoff last October. (Most recently, LeGrand tweeted on Monday that he has "Twitches going throughout the body" and pledged to followers "I will be back.") Richt doesn't expect any major movement to legislate kickoffs out of the game "any time soon" — and such a movement would represent probably the greatest affront to the way the game is played since the forward pass was introduced for similar safety reasons a century ago — but his endorsement is another indication that the idea is far from a dead letter.
In the meantime, the strategic risk/reward elements of Schiano's plan are already proving to be catnip for stat geeks. One of them, Football Outsiders' Bill Connelly, took issue with some pundits' claim that converting a 4th-and-15 from the 30-yard line was easier than recovering an onside kick, and thus more likely to lead to teams electing to play "make it, take it" after a score than we see now with post-score kickoffs. Not so, according to Connelly, whose numbers show that, on average, kicking teams are roughly twice as successful at recovering an onside kick as offenses are at converting a 4th-and-15 between their own 21 and 40-yard line, and that's without separating the dramatically higher success rate of surprise onside kicks from the overwhelmingly futile attempts at the end of a game.
To even out the odds of the kicking team keeping the ball under the Schiano Plan with the current odds, the proposal should revise its recommendation from 4th-and-15 to 4th-and-12 or 4th-and-13 instead. At this point, though — two forward-thinking coaches notwithstanding — we're likely still years away from the cultural sea change necessary to make that kind of detail relevant.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.