"I just remember thinking, ‘Why do we have to have kickoffs? Just because we’ve always had them?’ "
Greg Schiano has had good reason to spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of the kickoff in football -- when one of your players suffers a devastating injury during a play like that, it's natural to give it a little more thought than you otherwise would -- and he's wondering if there might not be a better way to do things. Schiano's contention (and it's one shared by multiple observers) is that the kickoff in football is the most dangerous play in the game and it yields a disproportionate number of injuries (particularly severe injuries).
This is Schiano’s plan: Replace all kickoffs with a punting situation, including after the opening coin toss and to start the second half. So, as an example, when Team A scores a touchdown, it immediately gets the ball back on a fourth and 15 from its own 30-yard line.
It can punt it back to Team B — the most likely outcome and a safer play since the bigger collisions usually happen on kickoffs.
Or it can line up and go for the first down, essentially replacing an onside kick with an offensive play that would require more skill than luck.
Schiano's plan is intriguing from multiple standpoints, particularly from a player safety vantage point and a pure competition standpoint. From a player safety standpoint, it's not entirely clear how much this change would help lessen the spate of serious injuries in football. Anecdotally, it seems to make sense: we all remember gruesome injuries on kickoffs, like Rutgers' Eric LeGrand or the Buffalo Bills' Kevin Everett, and from a common sense standpoint few things seem more terrifying (or likely to produce devastating injuries) than kick returns, where incredibly fast and impossibly strong players go full-sprint for 70 yards before colliding with another player at full speed.
That said, there's a fairly woeful dearth of data on this matter and it's something that really requires further investigation. Some of the data that is out there does seem to support the notion that kickoffs are more destructive than other plays, though. Given that Schiano's plan involves replacing kick returns with punt returns, though, we also need to determine how much safer (if at all) punt returns are than kick returns.
From a pure competition standpoint, though, Schiano's plan is very intriguing. The ability to "go for it" on a play that mirrors 4th-and-15 (or perhaps 4th-and-20 if you felt fifteen yards wasn't enough) offers up a host of possibilties to teams that just aren't there under the current kickoff system. Most onside kicks in expected situations (i.e., attempted comebacks at the end of a game) require a hefty dose of luck in order to be successful -- the ball needs to bounce just right, an opposing player needs to drop the ball, etc. -- which makes it harder for them to be effective. Converting 4th-and-15 (or 4th-and-20) wouldn't be easy, but it also wouldn't require as much luck as most onside kicks, which might make it easier for teams to mount comebacks late in the game. It might also make less risk-averse coaches (like, say, Mike Leach) more apt to take a gamble early in a game in an attempt to bury a team early. The difficulty of converting 4th-and-15 (or 4th-and-20 or whatever) is still going to keep coaches from "going for it" too often; most coaches are probably still going to punt the ball away when the percentages tell them to do so. But it could add some interesting wrinkles to the game.
Everyone understands that football is inherently a violent game and there's a limit to how much you can curtail that violence. That said, there's also a point when injuries become too debilitating and, perhaps, too prevalent and when rules ought to be changed. The rules of football are not etched in stone; they've changed many times over the past century, and they'll probably change many more over the course of the next century. And, yes, kickoffs can be a breathtaking play to watch -- at their best, there might not be any play in football that's more aesthetically pleasing and Iowa fans know a thing or two about nice kickoff returns. On the other hand, the vast majority of kickoffs are not breathtaking to behold: players sprint forward for roughly 20 yards before running into a large pile of players and getting crunched to the ground.
Schiano's idea may not be perfect, but it's an interesting one -- and one worthy of further discussion and development. Football's a physical game, but if there's a way to prevent (or limit) players from turning into the next Eric LeGrand or Kevin Everett, it might be worth considering a change.