When Bill Belichick told us during training camp in 2011 that the NFL said it wanted to eliminate kickoffs, the league mobilized quickly to deny that.
Since then -- through Wednesday -- what has the league done? It’s said that it’s moving toward eliminating kickoffs.
This post isn’t necessarily about whether the kickoff should be scrapped or not.
Data compiled by the league shows it’s the most dangerous play in the game, so it’s hard to pound the table to keep it around. But eliminating kickoffs means eliminating the onsides kick. The opportunity for the kicking team to get the ball back after a score is such an elemental part of late-game strategy that having that go away really alters the game. So it bears deeper investigation.
What I want to highlight is the push-pull between the most successful coach of his generation and the NFL office. How issues like the kickoff can draw out Belichick’s exasperation with the bureaucracy of 345 Park Avenue and how the league, in turn, gets agitated with Belichick hitting them in the neck with verbal blow darts.
Even though he’s 64 and been in the NFL for 41 seasons, Belichick is all about innovation. No team has been more on the leading edge than the Patriots in terms of cap management, roster building, draft approach and, of course, coaching the actual game.
In recent years, he’s put effort into creating rules proposals. Logical ones like moving the PAT back (adopted and effective), expanding replay, and putting fixed cameras on the boundaries.
There’s often been Competition Committee resistance to Belichick-led proposals. For instance, Giants owner Mara said in 2015 that adding boundary cameras was too expensive. Belichick sarcastically suggested a bake sale or car wash to raise the money.
That’s not unusual for Belichick who -- when asked about some new point of emphasis, scheduling quirk or rules change -- will often say with derision that we should “Ask the league.” More than once, he’s tacked on, “They have all the answers.”
It’s the bureaucracy that seems to irritate him. That and the belief that non-football people are making football decisions.
Take, for instance, his response in 2010 when he was told that NFL VP of Operations Ray Anderson was happy with the way Pats safety Brandon Meriweather was making safer tackles.
“I think that would be a first for me,” Belichick said. “The officials are now evaluating the players and their performance. No, I mean that’s great. [long pause] . . . I can’t tell you how much that means to me, really.”
Stuff like that isn’t going to escape the attention of league officials, who I’ve observed in routine conversation through the years not even bothering to hide their dislike for Belichick and the Patriots.
Anyway, back to the kickoff.
On Wednesday, Mara -- a 16-year member of the NFL’s Competition Committee -- said, “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. 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.”
Mara’s indication the kickoff might go extinct is precisely what Belichick said was the intent back in March of 2011. At the NFL’s Annual Meeting, a proposal before the Competition Committee had Belichick irked.
"It's a pretty complicated proposal," Belichick told reporters. "I don't like the idea of eliminating the kickoff [return] from the game. I think it's one of the most exciting plays in football. It looks like the Competition Committee is trying to eliminate that play. I don't know if that's really good for the game."
After amping it up in August 2011 by saying the league actually said it wanted to eliminate the kickoff return, I reached out to the NFL.
“[Chairman of the Competition Committee] Rich McKay and [NFL Vice President] Ray Anderson say that’s not accurate,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told me via e-mail back then. “They said the Competition Committee’s position was that they wanted to ‘shorten the field’ and that the movement of the kickoff line would potentially reduce the number of kickoffs to be returned. They said they are unaware of anyone saying that it was intended to ‘eliminate’ the kickoff return.”
Yet the league has continued intimating that’s on the table.
Obviously, the league is discussing this because it’s a health and safety issue. They should discuss it. As Mike Florio wrote, a case can be made for ending the discussion and just getting rid of it.
But the prospect of an alteration like this is what brings out the traditionalist in the oft-innovative Belichick.
Radical change to a sport he’s coached for 41 seasons, that his dad coached for his entire professional life, is going to be met with resistance if the change is affected by owners and league officials. Or if the move is perceived as being made with a cover-your-ass motivation that is turned into an “aren’t we progressive” photo-op.
Belichick speaks for the football guys. Having heard him wax poetic for 16 years about special teams and their impact on the game, he’s going to push back if he believes the football guys aren’t being heard. Or their territory is being encroached on.
I haven’t spoken to Belichick about Mara’s comments or his current feelings on alterations to the kickoff.
But the general course of this issue -- from the NFL's proposal, to Belichick’s rebuke of it, to the NFL’s denial of its ultimate intent, and now the unveiling of that intent -- is a case study in the kind of dance the Patriots head coach and the league office have engaged in for more than a decade. And it fascinates me.