Devin Hester stood at his six-yard line, knees bent and shoulders squared, his eyes not focused on the 21 other players on the field but instead the football resting 64 yards away. With a slight rain falling from the South Florida sky, thousands of flashbulbs bursting from the crowd and millions of eyeballs on the then-24-year-old Bears kick returner, Hester was both giddy and calm all at once, ready to start Super Bowl XLI in the city in which he played his college football — Miami.
As the ball arrived off the right foot of Colts PK Adam Vinatieri, Hester side-stepped to his left and caught it at the Chicago eight, his eyes now looking forward at the action unfolding in front of him. He turned to his right, where he briefly saw three white and blue jerseys approaching. Then, before most people could even turn their head to see what was going on, the Bears star stopped, changed his direction ever so slightly to his left and ran through a narrow gap to 70 yards of open field as green as Augusta National. Ten seconds later, he was in the endzone with a smile on his face, six points on the scoreboard for his team and his name in the record book: First touchdown on opening kickoff in Super Bowl history — Devin Hester, Feb. 4, 2007.
Though it has been only a little more than four years since the brilliance of Hester's runback, the memory is soon to be as distant as any of the magnificent returns of Gale Sayers or Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. With NFL owners following the advice of the competition committee and voting to move the spot of kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 by a vote of 26-6, the excitement of the kickoff return will eventually move aside, replaced by the dullness of a touchback. Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, explained why the league voted for the movement.
"The injury rate on kickoffs remains a real concern for us and the players and the coaches' subcommittee," said McKay, who is also the president of the Falcons. "This is a pretty major change."
There's no denying the truth: Several of the most severe football injuries in recent memory took place on kickoffs. Bills TE Kevin Everett dislocated his cervical spine covering a kick in Week One of the 2007 season, and though he is now able to fully use his arms and legs, his playing career is over. Rutgers University DT Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down after delivering a punishing hit on a kickoff on Oct. 16, 2010 and is unsure if he'll ever walk again. Ellis Hobbs of the Eagles was sidelined for the year after he was hit in the neck returning a kickoff in Week 11 last season and is considering retirement at age 27.
Unlike standard offensive plays, where most of the contact is between offensive and defensive linemen who burst out of their stance to hit each other similar to a fender-bender in rush-hour traffic, kickoffs are more comparable to SUVs running lights and hitting helpless vehicles in an intersection. Ten gunners on the kicking team are running as fast as possible down the field, directly into blockers moving at full speed the other direction to create space for a returner running his fastest to get the best possible field position. Hits can come from all directions to any player on the field. While the mantra may be "keep your head on a swivel," that's easier said than done. Both Everett and LeGrand were hurt by making tackles with their head tucked down and their helmets driving right into their opponents' bodies. (Note: Videos not for the squeamish.)
While it is quite admirable for the competition committee to be so concerned about player safety that they would convince the league to adapt such a dramatic rule change, their efforts are misguided here. Eliminating the chance of a career-ending and life-threatening injury is a great idea, but in this case, they are doing that in exchange for one of the core elements of football. Kickoffs are the opening to every game, every half, and many drives in between. They are ways to start rallies with good field position and chances for trailing teams to mount a comeback with onside kicks. Moving the ball up five yards will likely eliminate kick returns altogether, as teams will opt to launch the ball into the endzone for a touchback and gladly place it on the 20 instead of seeing the league's top returners gash them for major yardage. According to Pro Football Focus, only one kicker (Billy Cundiff of the Ravens) averaged kickoffs deeper than the goal line in 2010; under the new rules, that list would have 19 names on it.
If the committee is going to change the spot for kickoffs, then rules eliminating anything dangerous from the sport should be passed as well. Crossing routes for receivers, cornerback blitzes from quarterback's blind side and pulling offensive linemen to block defensive backs will be the next to go based on this precedent.
Better yet, just change the sport to two-hand touch. Then maybe someone from the Colts would have kept Hester out of the endzone.