The NFL recently paid the ultimate compliment to those who play on kickoff special teams. Recognizing the danger to those who play on the kickoff and kickoff return teams, the NFL has begun the process of legislating the kickoff out of existence.
Commissioner Goodell and the owners are so concerned about player safety and the possibility of huge losses from concussion lawsuits that the survival of the kickoff, perhaps football’s most exciting play, is in real danger along with jobs like that of Jacoby Jones.
If the kickoff is to survive in the NFL, improvements in player safety will be paramount. Achieving this goal will likely involve improvements in equipment, rules and ergonomic practices such as reducing the total playing time of each individual player (see, The Personal Bye: A Cure for the Preseason Blues HERE.
While safety is and should be of concern, the sport, and particularly the kickoff and punt return, will never be completely safe; after all, the danger of contact is a big part of the appeal of the sport of football. It is very possible that at some point, after all of the efforts to improve safety have been exhausted, that the players will simply accept the risk of injury. There is so much money in the sport of football, both professional and college, that men will make the informed decision to play despite, or perhaps, because of the risk.
Assumption of risk is an accepted concept in US jurisprudence. Firemen, police officers, oil rig workers, and, most particularly members of the armed forces all accept the risk of injury or worse for a pittance of what football players are paid. The NFL will continue, hopefully, as a full contact sport because one of the primary reasons the game is so popular is that fans admire the courage of the players. The young men playing in the NFL do not flinch in the face of the incredible violence, danger and pain they face with every play, but particularly with the kickoff.
Embracing Special Teams By Marketing Each Position
Once the assumption of the risk of danger in the NFL is agreed to by collective bargaining and legally sanctioned in the Courts, then why not embrace the courage of those who participate in football’s most exciting, and dangerous, plays. Special team plays make up about one-third of the game but, except for a few positions, the plays, players and positions have remained anonymous.
The NFL could really use a strong dose of Don Draper, the Mad Men advertising genius who always seemed to catch the public eye with his wit and guts to go against the status quo. Instead of minimizing special teams play why not embrace the courage of the players by naming special teams’ positions with heroic connotations!
Why not continue the tradition started by some special teams’ coaches with the “Gunner” position and name every special team position?
The analogy of the bomber crews of World War II is apt. (Political correctness warning: This is NOT an attempt to equate the playing of a sport with war, just an effort to acknowledge heroes past.)
The “Flying Fortress” had a crew of eleven (sometimes, usually ten) and each man had a critical responsibility. The missions required precise coordination, which involved formation flying, penetration of defensive shields and the ability to withstand incredible punishment but “bring the men home.” Each man had a role in the plane and certain planes had specific responsibilities within the formation.
This is obviously an extreme oversimplification of the history of this topic but expanding the accepted “gunner” name for a special team position by developing names for every position on each special team, perhaps with the bomber crew analogy, could be a success if properly developed by the NFL’s marketing machine.
Some possible position names for the kickoff and punt teams could include:
Kicker and Punter – The kicker is the kicker, no change needed. Ditto the punter.
Return Man – These positions have been marketed somewhat, i.e., Devin Hester (“You are RIDICULOUS!”), but there is still much potential to develop the reputations, skills and daring of the players in these positions.
Wingmen – The Left and Right Wingman position, closest to the sidelines, is critical because these players must cover the sidelines and stay-in-lane to avoid a return. Speed and toughness are necessary to get to the receiver and stay in bounds. Some coaches use this name already to describe the outside punt coverage positions.
Gunner – the position has been named and marketing of the position is already well established. This position is usually the first or second to arrive as the kick returner catches the kick. The player regularly must blast his way through blockers.
Navigator – One or two of the insider kickoff players with speed and strong tracking and tackling ability. This player navigates around and through blockers and uses his speed and tracking ability to catch and tackle the return man.
Tail Gunner – A safety or cornerback who hangs back from the initial charge downfield to guard against instances where the returner breaks through the first wave of tacklers. Tail gunner and kicker are last line of defense against a kick or punt return for a touchdown.
Nose Gunner – The guy who blasted a hole in the wall of blockers; a play that has been eliminated but could return with advances in equipment, reduction of plays by any individual player (more players on the roster and less total number of games played per player) or acceptance of risk by players union.
Armor – Blocker on kick or punt return immediately in front of return man.
Ok, it needs work! But you get the point, right?
Many of these position names are interchangeable and position duties can differ from one team to another. But the concept, embracing and marketing the kickoff and kickoff return teams, is valid!
In naming and marketing every Special Team position, the NFL may unleash a potentially significant untapped market. Just think about the possibilities with Fantasy Football marketing. The NFL could realize significant financial rewards by naming and defining each special team position and developing corresponding statistical measurements that could be incorporated into the Fantasy games.
And then suddenly, all of those relatively stealth players whose survival in the NFL clings to doing the dirty work that the starters look down their collective nose at, now become household names.
By accepting the risks, improving the equipment and bringing notoriety to the workmanlike efforts of special teamers, the NFL can preserve one of its most historically exciting plays.
Embrace the courage!
Submitted by Rob Ward, Ellicott City, MD
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