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NFL eliminating kickoffs might just be the start

The eliminatikickoff would mean no more exciting returns from Bears' DevHester.  | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

The elimination of the kickoff would mean no more exciting returns from the Bears' Devin Hester. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 13, 2012 12:08PM

The Packers win the toss and defer. The Bears choose to defend the south end zone and both sets of captains begin jogging back toward the sideline.

There’s a commercial break.

When the broadcast resumes, the game begins not with a kickoff but with Jay Cutler and the Bears offense with a first-and-10 on the 25.

Nobody knows what football will look like 30 years from now. Chances are, given what we know now and what we can expect to learn about brain trauma, it will look drastically different than what we will see when Bears and Packers meet at Soldier Field on Sunday for a critical late-season division showdown.

The recent debate has focused on eliminating by far the most dangerous play of an increasingly dangerous game. Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told TIME Magazine he would consider eliminating kickoffs from the game.

While such a change may seem radical now, outlawing the traditional opening play of the game and second half may end up being cosmetic compared to more profound changes that could eventually be in the offing.

Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano spent many nights at the bedside of former player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed after suffering a spinal cord injury defending a kickoff when Schiano was coaching at Rutgers. It was with LeGrand in mind that Schiano suggested kickoffs be replaced with punts because punts are less dangerous. If the scoring team wants to attempt to retain the ball, the chance to convert a fourth-and-15 would replace an onside kick.

It’s an interesting idea that Goodell has said will be contemplated by the league’s competition committee during the offseason. Here’s another plan owners should consider: Why punt at all?

When a team scores it could either have the option of a fourth-and-15 to retain possession at the risk of field position or the opposing team would simply take over on its 20-or 25-yard line. In our example, instead of a kickoff after a touchdown or field goal, the game would naturally resume with either Cutler or Aaron Rodgers calling cadence at the 25, which wouldn’t greatly impact the typical viewing experience.

Would such a change prevent people from buying tickets or alter viewing habits? Considering how many more touchbacks there have been since the league moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line before last season, would anybody even notice?

With so much money at stake in the form of network television contracts and lawsuits by disabled players, the NFL must continuously look for ways to make the game safer, whether fans like it or not. Changes are coming, to be sure. In some ways, eliminating kickoffs may be less offensive to our football sensibilities than some calls currently being made to protect defenseless players and fines levied for accidental helmet-to-helmet hits, facemasks and horse-collar tackles.

They could do away with the extra point while they’re at it. It’s by far the most boring play in sports and could be replaced with a more exciting mandatory two-point conversion, which could prompt enterprising coaches to form specialized units to execute that more meaningful play. Imagine the Jets or Raiders sending Tim Tebow or Terrelle Pryor onto the field for a critical two-point conversion. It would be far more entertaining than another routine extra point and could even make up for whatever excitement is lost if kickoffs go the way of drop kicks.

But I digress.

We could still say, “Kickoff is at noon,” even if there were no such thing. It would be strange at first, but imagining a game without kickoffs isn’t difficult to do. For the sake of argument, let’s say the league banned kickoffs during Sunday’s Bears-Packers game. Would it prevent you from watching? Would it make the viewing experience less enjoyable?

Considering the possible changes coming, and the concussions and other injuries inordinately sustained on this one play, it may well become a reality fans will have to live with.

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