FOXBORO -- Matthew Slater wants nothing more than for his teammates and opponents to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible. As the players union representative for the Patriots, he has fought for the safety of his peers.
But when it comes to perserving players' health, Slater doesn't believe that eliminating the kickoff is the answer. That's where that particular play may be headed, however, after the NFL opted to move starting field position for teams to the 25-yard line after a touchback. The aim of the move is to reduce the number of kickoff returns, which are considered among the game's most dangerous plays.
Slater was asked about the rule change at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, and he vigorously defended what he considers a vital part of the game.
"There’s a lot of speculation as to the future of the kickoff," Slater said. "I know this year I think it’s going to be interesting to see how teams approach it because [the touchback] just gives the team the ball on the 25 [yard line]. That changes field position quite a bit. It seems like just five yards but it’s going to be interesting to see how we approach it and how other teams approach it.
"And I’m very disappointed, obviously, in the way that we’re discussing the future of the kickoff. The kickoff is a big part of the history of the NFL and the history of football, and for us to be sitting here talking about maybe doing away with the kickoff, it’s very disappointing. I can think about days all the way back to watching my dad when he played with the Rams and thinking of returners like Ron Brown and people of that nature that made a career out of doing this. You think about Steve Tasker and his impact on the game of football, Bill Bates, the list goes on.
"The kicking game has meant a lot to the game of football and to a lot of players individually and it’s enabled guys to have careers. You think about Larry Izzo, you think about myself. Without the kicking game we don’t have a career. I’m very disappointed in some of the things I hear in regards to getting rid of the kickoff. I surely hope that’s not the case. I hope that’s not the direction that we’re moving in, but we’ll see."
The new touchback rule is considered by many to be a not-so-subtle nod to the fact that the league is hoping to eliminate the play altogether at some point. Giants owner John Mara put it very clearly earlier this offseason: The NFL may not want to wipe out all kickoffs at the moment, but that's where things might be headed.
"We're not at the point where we want to take the kickoff out of the game completely, although we may be moving in that direction," Mara told the Giants website. "One of the concerns is what do you do in a situation where you've scored late in the game and you’re down by less than a touchdown, and it takes away the onside kick. As I say, you could very well see the kickoff eliminated at some point in time in the future, but I don’t think we're at that point yet. It still does remain an exciting play, but it's also a dangerous play. Obviously concussions are on the top of our list in terms of our concerns for the game going forward.
"We thought we'd at least try this (spotting the ball at the 25) first. This was not going to pass when we took the initial straw vote on it. Then we changed it to, 'Let’s see what happens for one year.' So it’s in effect for one year. It ended up passing unanimously, again, for one year."
Slater admitted that he's not sure how the Patriots will go about executing their kickoffs in 2016. He did acknowledge that the NFL's plan could "backfire," though. If teams begin to aim their kicks shy of the goal line because they're not willing to kick into the end zone and give up the added five yards, the rule could actually lead to more returns.
"That's a half of another first down," Slater said of the five-yard change. "Moving that thing up, that field position is so big. I'm not 100 percent familiar with the numbers, but I think drives that start at the 25 certainly do end in scoring more often than drives that start at the 20 or behind that.
"Football, to the common fan they may not understand this, but it's a game of field position . . . If you're just handing some of the great quarterbacks in this league an extra five yards, I think it changes the game. I certainly don't want to give Tom Brady the ball on the 25-yard line. I'd rather him have it on the 20 if I'm playing against him. Or behind the 20. Field position is huge in this game. You're adding an additional five percent of the field to the offense. I don't feel that that's the best thing for the game.
"I understand that they're trying to do what's best in terms of health and safety, and I respect that. Obviously I'm our union rep here, so obviously I think there's nothing more important than the health and safety of our players. But I do not think the kickoff is a hazard that we need to think about getting rid of."
Part of Slater's reasoning, which also may tug at him as a union leader: The eventual elimination of kickoffs could mean the eventual elimination of jobs like his and others that his teammates fill.
"I obviously have strong feelings about it because of what guys like myself are able to do," he said. "You think about how many times last year Brandon King ran down, made plays inside the 10, [Nate] Ebner making plays inside the 10 or inside the 20. That's a weapon for a football team when you have players like that. I think it's certainly taking away from, if you get rid of the kickoff, it takes away from what some of those cover guys are able to bring to the game of football."