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BLOG: The NFL’s Kickoff Quandry

121266676 BLOG: The NFL’s Kickoff Quandry

By Bill Campbell

While the Eagles try to decide whether rookie Casey Matthews is really their answer at middle linebacker, and whether rookie Jason Kelce deserves his time at offensive center, the NFL in general has another consideration: how will the moving of the kickoff spot from the 30 to the 35-yard line affect the game, if at all?

The league’s competition committee says the change came about for health concerns, based on statistics showing an increase of concussions and other major injuries occurring on kickoff returns. The committee watched a lot of film and came to the conclusion that it was a play that needed modification.

But, as some have previously pointed out, they may have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

By eliminating one of the most exciting plays in the game, you have to wonder if there really was a genuine concern on anyone’s part regarding the health of the players. If so, why would the lords of the game even consider going to an 18 game schedule? That, you’ll recall, was one of their major points during the lockout. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the regular season remains at 16 games.

Bobby April, the Eagles’ special teams coach, points out that “they moved the kickoff spot back from the 35 to the 30 almost 20 years ago so that there would be more kickoff returns. Now they’re doing the opposite so there will be fewer.”

He’s probably correct in feeling that this is the only time they’ve put in a rule limiting the potential of a big and exciting play. April has no doubt that the percentage of touchbacks will continue to rise and kickoff returns will decrease because kickers will continue to improve. We’ve already seen evidence of that in our pre-season games. Maybe a rule pertaining to how the play is blocked should be inserted because player safety is, unquestionably, a legitimate consideration.

I’m told that a century or so ago, when Theodore Roosevelt was president of the United States, he wanted to outlaw football. Thank goodness that idea didn’t gain any momentum. And there is some question as to whether kickoff returns will be missed that much by the league spectators. Their reaction could be telling but only time will tell.

There’s a guy at Lehigh Valley named Brandon Moss, who may very well become the Phillies’ newest version of the left-handed hitter. But, dreamer that I am, I keep thinking about Jim Thome.

Could it possibly happen? It’s probably been forgotten by many, but the player who really paved the way for the re-entry of winning baseball in Philadelphia was Jim Thome. The year before Citizens Bank Park opened, he signed as a free agent with hopes of closing out a Hall of Fame career with a World Series ring. That didn’t happen. But by passing the 600 mark in home runs recently, his chances for Hall of Fame recognition moved to the front burner.

But Thome would still like to be part of a World Series team. And there are rumors that won’t go away that the Phillies might be looking for a left-handed bat to come off the bench. Thome is currently a designated hitter for the Minnesota Twins, but the grapevine says that the Twins might be willing to accommodate him if he wanted to go to a team with a chance to win the whole thing.

Does that sound like the Phillies of 2011?

There are some probable obstacles to overcome. If the Twins were to put Thome on trade waivers, every other team in baseball would be entitled to claim him before the Phillies because the Phillies have the game’s best record. And probably every team would put in a claim, especially an American League team in need of a designated hitter.

Thome, of course, does have a no-trade clause and could decline a trade to a team he wasn’t “gung ho” about and become a free agent. If that happened he would forfeit the remainder of his Minnesota contract, which would be no big deal for a player of Thome’s stature.

For the moment, these are just noisy, out loud but pleasant thoughts for Phillies fans and, I suspect, for Jim Thome.

It’s nice to remember that the Phillies once got a big postseason home run from Matt Stairs in similar circumstances. And it would be delicious, indeed, to get another one off the bat of Jim Thome. He hit 96 of his 600 home runs in a Phillies uniform and it would be a fantastic end to a solid career.

But the Phillies have Brandon Moss at Lehigh Valley, a left-handed hitter who has hit 22 home runs this season. And it would be far easier, though not as exciting, to promote him. It doesn’t hurt though that Jim Thome just might be Charlie Manuel’s all time favorite player. So stay tuned.

The guy who led me into this business was an old sports writer named Stoney McLinn, who spent part of his career as Ty Cobb’s ghost writer. Not many media guys can claim to once having been ghost writer for the player generally recognized as maybe the greatest player of all time.

Stoney taught me many things over the years, for which I’ve always been grateful. He was physically handicapped and spent much time on canes and crutches. He couldn’t go to too many games or places without me and we spent much time together. I remember many of the things he told me, particularly about baseball – which really was his favorite sport. He said that his fascination with the game came from the fact that no matter how many games one attended, a season would never be completed without seeing one end in a way he had never seen before.

The endings of games keep changing. I’ve seen a lot of games. As a play-by-play broadcaster, I’ve described over a 1,000 games – and seen countless games as a spectator. And I’ve come to the conclusion that Stoney was right.

Until Sunday, August 21, 2011, I had never seen a major league game end the way that particular Phillies game ended in Washington, D.C. I’ve seen games end on a home run, on a base hit, on a bases-loaded walk, on an error, a passed ball, a wild pitch, a sacrifice – or in many other ways.

But until last Sunday, I’d never seen a game end with a batter hit by a pitch. Washington probably exists in the minds of most of us as the seat of government.

But the Phillies must believe it to be the residence of the nation’s chief meteorologist who was in complete control of the weather. The Phillies endured almost six hours of rain delays in one weekend in Washington. A week ago, they had lost only one game all season in which they’d led after eight innings.

Stoney always said he’d been around long enough to have seen it all. But I seriously wonder if he had seen everyone walk off the field after a batter had been plunked.

I can hear him now, “I never thought I’d ever see that.”

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