Monday, May 07, 2018

Eliminate kickoffs? Not if Nate Ebner has a say

By Paul Daugherty
May 6, 2018

There are people who talk about things, and there are people who know about them. It’s the difference between taking a picture of a sheer rock face, and climbing one. Which gets me to the NFL, kickoffs in the NFL and an Ohio guy named Nate Ebner.

He’s a 7th-year pro from Springfield, who walked on at Ohio State and was drafted in the sixth round by the New England Patriots. Ebner is a quintessential “teams’’ guy. A relentless, driven badass. Or, in his words, “a dog. Every great special teams player is a dog. Whatever it takes, floor it, no back down, be a pain in the tail.’’

Ebner’s not happy the NFL is talking about booting the kickoff. Green Bay Packers CEO and president Mark Murphy, a member of the league’s competition committee, said recently, "If you don't make changes to make it safer, we're going to do away with it.’’

Murphy doesn’t lack credibility. He played eight years in the NFL and was an all-pro safety. Murphy has been on the rock face.

The threat is worrisome enough that a dozen or so special-teams coaches, including the Bengals’ Darrin Simmons, have offered changes designed to lessen the head-injury risk in playing on a kickoff team. They’re suggesting ways to cut down the speed of collisions and the yardage between combatants. Fender-benders instead of front-end manglers. Opposing players would run with each other, not into each other. Kickoffs would resemble punts.

It’s an effort to save the play from the boneyard. It’s also an existential question for players. Football is a violent game. Pain is implied in the contract. Everyone understands this. Are we not men? What's the problem?

“Nobody cares more about player safety than the players,’’ Ebner says. “I don’t want to get hurt. I’m rehabbing my knee right now (torn ACL). I don’t want to have CTE. But I’m not afraid of it. I’m not going to let it take my dream away.’’

When he walked on at Ohio State in 2009, Ebner hadn’t played football since middle school. The chances of making the Buckeyes as a non-preferred walk-on are almost zero. The chances of actually playing are even less. In three years as a Buckeye, Ebner never missed a game on special teams. Beyond teams, his OSU career consisted of three plays on defense (as a safety) his senior year.

Then the Patriots drafted him at No. 197, in 2012. That was two spots higher than they’d taken Tom Brady 12 years earlier. By all rights, Ebner had no business playing college or pro football. But special teams rewards and glorifies its selfless strivers. It loves its dogs. There’s something very noble about that.

(Ebner is also the only active NFL player ever to be an Olympian, having played on the U.S. Rugby 7s side in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But that’s another story.)

Ebner speaks for most NFL players when he wonders about the NFL’s future. If the league bans kickoffs, what’s next? “I don’t want to see such an ingrained part of the game taken away,’’ he says. “I’m not as concerned about running down on kickoffs as I am playing (defense) on 3rd-and-1 at the goal line. Fullback’s the lead blocker, middle linebacker’s coming into the hole. You don’t think that’s a collision?

“At least on kickoffs, I have a lot of space. I have plenty of room to move my guy. The good players on kickoffs aren’t just running into people. They’re using their feet to create space, they’re using their hands.

“I’ve seen three (head injuries on kickoffs) over seven years,’’ Ebner says. “Two were mine, because I didn’t have my head in the right place. That was my fault.’’

The NFL finds itself in a position of historic irony. Not just with the kickoff question, but with every facet of the sport. Part of the league’s appeal is visceral. We love big hits. They’re a guilty pleasure. Players are taught to play with violent, instinctive intelligence. How do we take part of that equation away?

Play hard. Sort of.

But head trauma — and the pounding the league’s image has taken because of it — has to be addressed. The NFL says its numbers show that last season, concussions happened on kickoffs five times more than on any other play.

Ebner also notes that eliminating the kickoff would eliminate jobs. Something else would be lost, too: The long-shot chance for people like Nate Ebner to play the game. Marginal players find a foothold on special teams. Their diligence and persistence are rewarded. They might be a little nuts. But it’s a good nuts.

“There’s no better feeling than making a big hit or knocking the ball out on a special teams play that totally changes the momentum of the game,’’ Ebner says.

Mark Murphy says the kickoff is on a “short leash.’’ Does he recognize the dogs he’s dealing with?

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