Player Health & Meyer Kickoff philosophy

Akeem96's picture
October 21, 2012 at 4:07p

As I approach 40 years old I sometimes find myself debating myself whether I should be a football fan.  Every week we see player after player go down with season ending ACL injuries and similar.  We have come to accept that these are season ending injuries and the player will get surgery and be back good as new next year.  I try to stop and think about how those knees will really be in 20 – 30 years.  Not as frequent, but just as significant are the career ending and life changing injuries.  I was afraid that we witnessed one of these injuries yesterday afternoon.  I was greatly relieved that this was not the case.  Because of the inherited danger of the sport, I have often considered not following or supporting it, not that anyone would notice.

Despite the above, I AM a huge fan.  The passion side of me usually ends up rationalizing away these boycott thoughts by considering that these players are playing because they love the game, they love the thrill, and would probably be engaging in something equally or more destructive if they were not playing football.  I also acknowledge that high school and college football has been a life saver for many athletes by allowing them to escape from less than desirable non-football lives. 

When a player (Adam Bellamy comes to mind) decides to leave the game for any reason at all, he has my full support.  It is just too dangerous to play without full personal buy in.

I am also a fan of Urban Meyer and I am glad we no longer have to suffer the heartburn of Tressleball (a little sarcasm there).   I was ecstatic with the rumors of Meyer’s potential hiring and would not let myself buy in because I was sure that somehow it would fall through.  I like almost everything he has brought to Ohio State.  Almost.

Okay, enough background.   The one aspect that I just don’t get is the kickoff philosophy.  A rule was changed this year that moves the kickoff up to the 35 yard line, but gives possession at the 25 yard line for kickoff touchbacks.  The stated goal of this rule change was to create more touchbacks in the interest of player safety.  Meyer has explicitly stated that Basil could kick it through the end zone regularly if he was instructed too but Meyer prefers that his “Freak Show” try to kick it high and pin the opponents inside the twenty or better.  I believe this as Basil has consistently put the ball in same place all year long.  It has also been extremely successful at times (see Nebraska).  I would be interested in the overall success of this philosophy from a numbers standpoint, but I’m not going to spend any effort on it because it really isn’t my point.

My point is that a rule was changed to create touchbacks and increase player safety and we have a coach going Robbie Alomar in the face of said rule and trying to exploit the rule for a strategic advantage.  How can a fan base condemn Dantonio for playing Gholston after sustaining a concussion getting the wind knocked out of him but condone Meyer for laughing at the spirit of a player safety rule change for competitive advantage?

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Nick's picture

Many schools do it. It is called field positioon. If the NCAA really cared about players they would completely take the kickoff out of the game if they thought it was that dangerous and they would also allow schools that have the means to help out their under privileged players (ie pay for their parent to see some games etc)

Akeem96's picture

It is not that simple.  Removing the kickoff completely eliminates the possiblilty of an onside kick.  They have also changed rules on those too.
I also don't like the "all the other kids are doing it" excuse.    
I eluded to but have not done the research to support it, but I think this team would be better off had they gotten all the touch backs they could.  They obviously had one yesterday that was 75 yds worse than the 25 yard line, but they have had a few others that were long returns that didn't go the distance.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

It could be that simple. If the purpose the rule - as you suggest - was to greatly or almost entirely (not merely moderately) reduce the number of KO returns, the NCAA could have instituted a rule (as Nick points out above) giving kicking teams an option: either atomatically give the ball to the "receiving" team at the 25 yd line (no kick); or, if the kicking team elects to kick away (e.g., to go for an onside kick), the rule might not only require the ball go a minimum of 10 yards before the kicking team can touch it; the rule might also stipulate that the ball must go no further than, say, 25 yards, or else it would be whistled dead and the ball given to the receiving team at the 40 yard line, etc.
But I think the intent of the rule change was to reduce injuries, not to send some of sort of signal to coaches that KO returns should be avoided. If the rule change does not have its intended effect, maybe they will reevaluate it.    

Buckforlife's picture

I think that if they truely wanted to make the players safer they would get rid of kickoffs alltogether. Urban Meyer is just doing what he thinks is best to help this team win. Having the opponent start at the 10 or 15 is a lot better than at the 25. The powers that be had to of known that coaches would try this tatic. 

No relation to OSUFORLIFE...

pompano buckeye's picture

I do not believe that UM is exploiting a rule, as a matter of fact, he is doing what virtually every team would do if they had the same set of circumstances, i.e. a kicker that can precisely place the ball every kick, and coverage that can (almost, sigh...try to forget the occasional 100 yd return!) cover inside of the twenty.  If it was truly all about safety, then they would pass a rule that says instead of kicking off, the ball would simply be placed on the receiving team's 20 or 25 yard line...kind of like OT, except farther away...and more boring!  I for one, do not want that.

“...indomitable in victory, insufferable in defeat.” Woody Hayes

TMac's picture
Off of 40 kickoffs we give up an average 20.7 yard return - so if we put it on the goal line we are gaining 5 yards of field position by not kicking it deep into the endzone/touchback. Also this is remarkably consistent compared to prior years, except for 2008 when it was less than 17 yards per return!

ONE Not Done!

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I supsect that Urbz has been short/high kicking (instead of booming away for a likely touch back) a bit more this season that he would if the team were fighting for a BCS slot. The "freak show" helps to establish a violent aggressive tone, attitude, and culture for the team in general, as well as giving Urbz extra chances to watch his frosh LBs and DBs run down and try to make plays in space.
Yes, it adds risk of injury, etc., but this team is a work in progress, with many players on defense who've struggled to take good angles on the ballcarrier, wrap up on tackles, "play with good leverage," funnel the ballcarrier back to his teammates, etc. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of safe, nonviolent ways to teach these skills/concepts and/or figure out which players are going to "get it."
If we ever get the point that KO returns are outlawed and most teams run an Airraid offense, power teams like Wisconsin 2010 and now Bama will probably end up smashing through teams like a battering ram through plywood; moreover, the kids who go on to play in the NFL will be shocked by the intensity and sheer violence.   

Akeem96's picture

Wow!  A couple angles I hadn't considered.  Thank you (sincere).

Akeem96's picture

Thanks for the info TMAC.  That is better than I expected.  I also thought about my comparison to the Dantonio/Ghoston thing and that was not really fair (apples/oranges).
However, you are the coach of a team that has more than its share of injuries.  You prefer to play your starters on special teams.  You have a rule change and a kicker that would allow you to take the most dangerous play in football out of the equation.  Is five yards of field position (on kickoffs only) worth it?
I know there have only been a couple big returns, but you also bring those momentum changers back into a game when you don't need to.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

But now you've switched it back to a strategic discussion - which is where it probably belonged in the first place - away from suggesting that Urbz was violating the spirit of the rule. Again, though, my guess is that Urbz is prioritizing the need to develop young talent and team toughness above possibly avoiding injuries on KO returns. 

sloopy88's picture

I'm with you on the occasional ambivalence about being a football fan-- it's difficult to tell how a healthy young man faced with the possibility of celebrity can really give informed consent to activities that may give him joint damage or worse when he's older.  With regards to this particular rule, I think it's worth considering that Meyer's actions are not only legal but must have been expected by the drafters-- changing the kickoff distance is risk management, not risk elimination.  Changing the kickoff distance increases the odds of a touchback, so that on the whole, across all college football games, there will be fewer kickoff returns and fewer high-injury-potential plays.  So long as we're still kicking from the new distance, the odds are also higher for us to have a touchback, even though we're not actively trying for one.  There's just so many situations in college football that risk serious injury to players that no one rule or strategy change will significantly reduce the risk of injury in general.  I'm more comforted to see how seriously the staff took the possibility of a head injury for Miller, and hope they treat every player's health with the same level of care. 

NW Buckeye's picture

You really need to understand more about the kick off scheme. Yes, Meyer is opting to kick the ball and force the opponent to return it.   However, with the Kick off at the 35 and the height of the kick going down to the goal line the dynamics have drastically changed.  The rule that keeps the KO team within 5 yards of the ball and starting at the 35 really changes the coverage technique.  It used to be that return teams set a wedge, and wedge busters came flying down the field to break it up.  With the type of kick Urban employs it is very difficult to set a conventional wedge, and I know for a fact that there are no wedge breakers used in Urban's scheme.  Instead, the defenders get to a certain point in the field in order to "hem in" the returner and take away half the field.  Yes, people still can get injured.  But, for the most part the catastrophic injuries of kicking at the 30, sending people down the field with as much as a 15 yard run up prior to kick, have been reduced. 
Obviously the safest kick is one that flies through the endzone, although I have seen a few injuries on those types of kicks as well (I know that is hard to believe, but it does happen).  In short, football is a violent game. But, statistically there can be as many leg injuries in soccer.  Our trainer at our HS saw more leg/knee/ankle injuries in HS girls soccer than any other sport. 

SaintTressel's picture

FWIW I believe the conventional wedge on KOR is now illegal. I'm pretty sure only 2 man wedges are allowed now.

NW Buckeye's picture

Correct, which makes Urban's scheme that much more palatable.

BuckeyeTilIdie's picture

This is being done, because statistically a team is less likely to score getting the ball down inside of the 20.. Automatically giving them the ball at the 25 increases the liklihood of that team scoring points... at the end of the day it is about winning.. I'm OK with Urban's philosophy because I understand the numbers side of the game.. Nobody will ever remember him for being the "safe coach"-- he's there to win games.

Remember that in the end you will be judged not by what you believed, planned or dreamed; but, by what you did.

Nkohl13's picture

The NCAA screwed it up when they changed a touchback to the 25 yard line. The thought was to prevent teams from returning it because it would be hard to get past the 25. However it gave more of an incentve for the kicking team not to get a touchback. Moving the kicking team to the 35 was meant to make it easier to get more touchbacks and give them less momentum going towards the opponent, but it just made it possible for the kicking team to cover ground faster. We have consistently stopped teams short of the 25 all year. I believe if they moved touchbacks back to the 20 teams would kick it out of the endzone more because it would be hard to stop returners before they get to the 20. 

Toilrt Paper's picture

If your plan is to kick the ball deep into or out of the endzone there are still players flying down the field, the kicker might miss hit. There are still players on the kick return team trying to block the the players flying don the field.
If the coach of the receiving team was concerned about safery he should tell his kick returner to take a knee one yard deep in the endzone instead of trying for a return. He should tell his returner to let the ball go if he is a couple of one yards out side of the endzone. If the kickoff is mishit he should tell his returner to call for a fair catch at the 10 yard line.
The colder and windier the weather gets it increases the possibility that Urbans plan will cause the kickoff to out of bounds when kicking high and into the corner. Then the receiving team gets the ball at the 35 yardline.

rdubs's picture

To me the fault isn't with a coach setting a game plan (unless that plan is explicitly to injure someone).  He is making those plans within the rules of the game.  The real issue is that the NCAA rule is contradictory.  On the one hand you try to get rid of returns by moving up the kick line, on the other you discourage touch backs by moving up the default line of scrimmage.  If they really are interested in player safety, they will do what the NFL did and leave it at the 20.  Otherwise the encourage more returns because it just becomes easier to trap people deeper than a touchback would.

741's picture

I'm sorry but I totally and respectfully disagree with UFM on this point. First, the scheme isn't working: we've given up at least two kick returns for TD's this season, and Basil has made at least 4 tackles to save additional potential TD returns.
Further, I have my doubts Basil is capable of kicking it out of the back of the end zone with regularity. (Last year, kicking of 5 yards deeper, he pretty consistently put the ball on the 10 yard line.)

Buckeye80's picture

I think Basil could kick it out easily.....did you see the missed field goal yesterday?  Unfortunately it hooked, distance wise, it would have been good from 60 easily.
Meyer is a big risk, big reward coach.  You see it in every phase of the game.  Going for it on 4th down, fake punts inside our own 40, etc.  It's just who he is.  The kick offs are are the same way.  Personally I would have Basil kick it out every time, because unlike Meyer, I don't think the risk is worth the reward.
I hate the spread punt we run, more than the kickoffs.  If we are going to run that spread formation, when the defense lines up to block you have to run the fake.  That's supposed to be the point of it.  If you're not going to do it, than line up in a tight formation and punt the ball.  Once again,in this case my opinion is that "the juice isn't worth the squeeze".

Doc's picture

Meyer makes over 4 million dollars a year to win football games.  you win more games if the other teams have to go 85 yards instead of 75.  Plain and simple.

CJDPHoS Member

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ShowThemOhiosHere's picture

I don't think Urban is doing anything morally wrong with purposely not getting touchbacks.  The idea is to reduce the number of kick returns.  They could do away with them completely, and just start the opposition at X yard line, if they were that concerned with kickoff returns.  However, you do away with one of the most exciting plays in football.  I don't know if anyone wants to see that.  Injury-wise, look - it's football - you can get seriously injured on any play.
Strategically, it's one of those things where how good of an idea it is ends up being ultimately judged on the result of the decision.  It seems like good strategy when the coverage team nails the returner at the 15.  It doesn't seem so good when the returner takes it 100 yards to the house.  I like the strategy overall - but if we keep giving up TDs, then we should change it.  It seems like since my last game as a student (Iowa, 2009), OSU has given up a lot of kickoff return TDs. 

Class of 2010.

d5k's picture

I apologize in advance if anyone gets bored reading this post.
First: Strategic decisions in football, or sports or life in general, that have a probability component and a way to quantify the degree of success of the outcome can be analyzed mathematically, the same way that poker players analyze the success of a strategy "in the long run" rather than strictly looking at the results of one hand.
Now, looking at Urban's strategy for kickoffs, we need to have some way of defining success and failure, then quantifying those successes and failures and then analyzing the probability distribution.  Success is clearly pinning a team inside the 25 and failure is allowing them to run beyond the 25, particularly if they score or greatly enhance the chance of scoring. 
In order to quantify this though you need some metric that defines the value of having the ball X yards from the end zone.  Luckily someone on the internet already did this here:
Essentially, getting the ball at the 15 instead of the 25 means the other team will go from around +0.5 expected points to -0.5 expected points.  In other words every time Urban's piranhas pin them at the 15 we gain a point over a touchback.  But if they get it out to their own 40 they are in a +1.5 expected points from their starting field position.  If we assume these are the only possible outcomes, then we only need to pin them deep at the 15 more often than we allow them to break out to the 40 (to average less than the touchback would average). 
However, occasionally (too often this year), they might break an even bigger return and get in plus-territory or score a touchdown.  This would be worth anywhere from 2 to 6.5 points more than the expected points from the 25 yard line touchback. 
The overall expected points from the pop-it-up at the 1 yard line could then be approximated as
(Probability of pinning deep) * -0.5 +
(Probability of decent return to 40 yard line) * 1.5 +
(Probability of big return into plus territory or for 6) * 5
If you plug it in a spreadsheet with probabilities of 70%, 20%, and 10% you get an expected value of +0.45 which is better (less is better) than the "guaranteed" touchback of +0.5.  That said, against a team that is worse than you, adding this extra element of volatility just gives them more chances to get lucky and beat you.  But if the team is close to your level, it can be a good play if you execute consistently enough (maximize probability of pinning deep and minimize probability of big return).  This is true even if you occasionally give up a touchdown return.  It is difficult to calculate the true probabilities though but I am guessing Urban would expect far less than 10% of returns to go into plus-territory in the long run.
If you want to learn more about why going for it on 4th down in many traditional spots is not really more risky than punting, read articles on that site that I linked.
Also, if they wanted to limit injuries on kickoffs, just put the touchback back to the 20 yard line and I would guess Urban would be happy to kick it out of the end zone all day long.  That extra 5 yards flips the math I'm guessing.