SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Talk of eliminating kickoffs brings up issue of safety vs. sanctity

The NFL will look into ways to eliminate kickoffs in order to reduce the likelihood of head injuries and other catastrophic outcomes.

Are NFL kickoffs in their final days?

Nothing's official, of course, but it's clear the league is determined to find a safer alternative to one of football's most exciting plays.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said this week that the competition committee will look into ways of eliminating kickoffs, thereby reducing the likelihood of head injuries and other catastrophic outcomes. This isn't idle talk. The league could be facing billions in damages as a result of head-injury lawsuits, and those would outweigh any arguments about the sanctity of the game.

Promoting touchbacks by moving kickoffs up five yards has reduced the number of injuries, according to committee member Jeff Fisher, but that's obviously not enough for the league's liking. The idea of making a drastic change has gathered momentum among the NFL's most influential decision makers, according to people within the league. The issue will be a major topic of discussion at the league's annual meetings in March.

In a recent interview with Time magazine, Goodell disclosed one of the alternatives being considered, an idea pitched by Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano. The Buccaneers coach has suggested replacing kickoffs by giving the ball to the would-be kicking team at its 30, and putting that team in a fourth-and-15 situation. That team can then decide whether to punt or go for it. They also could employ a fake punt.

The thinking is that punts are safer than kickoffs — you don't have two walls of players gathering a head of steam before they collide — and the odds of converting a fourth-and-15 are roughly equivalent to the odds of recovering an onside kick. The yard line and the down and distance could be tweaked to balance those probabilities.

"I understand traditionalists don't agree, but there used to not be the forward pass too," Schiano told reporters this week. "The game would be pretty boring without it. I am not saying it is right or wrong. I am just saying you got to be able to think outside and whatever is best for the players."

Schiano was inspired to come up with a kickoff alternative because of a devastating injury to one of his players at Rutgers, Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed by a collision on a kickoff.

"One of the things that when I was researching, I think it was like in the kickoff rules, 17% of the catastrophic injuries happened on kickoffs. Yet it is only about 6% of the plays in the game," the coach said. "Well that's disproportionate, right? Things like that are reasons that led me to that, but obviously it is a personal thing with me because of Eric LeGrand."

Had Schiano suggested this in another era, even a few years ago, he would have gotten no traction at an owners meeting. The league is notoriously slow or unwilling to change rules, even meager ones. But this is a different time, and the stakes (and legal liabilities) are much higher.

In a poll Friday on ProFootballTalk.com, two-thirds of about 75,000 NFL fans said that making the switch to Schiano's suggestion was a bad idea. Surely, lots of players, coaches and perhaps owners would be staunchly resistant to it too.

But, rest assured, some type of change is coming. Just cross your fingers that it still looks like football.

Thinking big

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about Peyton Manning and referred to his insistence on knowing everything that goes on in the organization, not just what happens on the field. He wants to know where the college scouts are headed and why, and why certain people are on the sidelines during games.

Apprised of that, John Madden floated a theory: "He's probably preparing to be an owner. He's going to know everything, and someday he's going to be an owner — or he thinks he'll be an owner, I'd bet."

Manning chuckled at Madden's suggestion. He didn't outright dismiss it, but did say he's focused on the now (although he recently bought 21 Papa John's pizza franchises in the Denver area.).

"I've always given guys a hard time when [teammates are] always thinking about what they're going to do next," he said. "You hear guys in the locker room saying, 'Oh, yeah, this is my plan after.' I look at them like, 'You know, you could be doing your current job a little bit better. You could be running this route better, or blocking this guy better.' So if I hold other guys to that, I've got to do the same thing."

Quick snaps

Some observations from R.J. Bell of Pregame.com:

•In games played in Seattle, rookie Russell Wilson has 11 touchdown passes and zero passes intercepted.

•All but one of the last 10 Pittsburgh games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

•New England has won 28 of its last 30 regular-season home games.

•Baltimore has been outgained in seven of its last eight games.

sam.farmer@latimes.com twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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