The NFL changed its kickoff rule this offseason, in an attempt to reduce head injuries resulting from the collisions that often ensued when 11 players got a running start in pursuit of one player moving at full speed in the opposite direction. The changes will be reviewed after the 2018 season. But Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has an even more radical proposal in mind.
This isn’t the first time Harbaugh has floated the idea, and he has an obvious motive for supporting it: Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is the best in the league, and Harbaugh initially suggested the extra-long extra point after Tucker planted a kickoff between the goalposts during a 2016 game. Tucker, not surprisingly, is in favor of the suggestion, too.
A rule like this, which has never been formally put to a vote, would represent a major change to the scoring system. But that’s happened before; the two-point conversion has long existed at the game’s lower levels, but it was only added to the books in the NFL in 1994.
Harbaugh’s rule would benefit player safety, since kickers would be much more likely to swing for the uprights, with the downside to a miss being either a touchback resulting from the ball landing out of the end zone, or a return man catching it deep in the end zone and taking a knee or just letting it bounce. (One of this year’s changes calls for an automatic touchback as soon as a kickoff touches the ground in the end zone.)
The league has long wanted to boost scoring, and this rule would do that. It would incentivize attempting field goals, particularly early or in close games, because of the opportunity for a “fourth point.” It would also result in shifts in strategic decision-making, depending on the score late in games. A nine-point deficit, for example, could create the potential for all sorts of chaos. Would a team want to wipe it out with one possession by scoring a TD, going for two, and blasting the kickoff through the uprights? Or would it be better to score a TD, kick the extra point, and attempt an onside kick, knowing that recovering it and kicking a field goal would take the lead?
Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith, who has supported Harbaugh’s proposal since Harbaugh and Tucker first suggested it, offered up an additional twist: an exception to the rule that prevents goaltending, at least on kickoffs. The current rule calls for a 15-yard penalty on goaltends. However, as Smith wrote:
But that rule shouldn’t apply to kickoff points, because it would be great to reward a kickoff returner who’s athletic enough to leap up and swat away a kick that’s 10 or 11 feet in the air. And in a late-game situation where one point is the difference in the game, a team could put in its best goaltender to try to block a kickoff point: How exciting would it be to see the Seahawks, in a tie game in the final minute, send Jimmy Graham back to jump up and block the kickoff from going through the uprights?
There are obvious drawbacks to Harbaugh’s idea, though. For one thing, it would render everyone but the kicker and the goaltender functionally useless, unless the kicking team were to take a chance by attempting a return from deep in the end zone. For another, the rule would be at the complete mercy of environmental conditions like wind, weather, and altitude (it’s not hard to see how advantageous this would be for the Broncos). Finally, there’s something about the Harbaugh rule that just feels Canadian, owing to its similarity to the rouge, which is the one point kicking teams can score on touchbacks in the CFL. And we can’t have that.