Can Roger Goodell Save Football?

Concussions. Bounties. Replacement refs. and now another player tragedy. For the NFL commissioner, the problems keep piling up

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Chip Litherland for TIME

Goodell mingles with fans in Jacksonville, Fla. The Senator's son has a politician's touch

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On the pro level, Goodell is still exploring changes to the game. Kickoffs seem especially vulnerable, which won't please many fans, since they have the potential to deliver excitement. In a recent meeting with Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, head of the NFL's competition committee, Goodell brought up an idea promoted by Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano: After a touchdown or field goal, instead of kicking off, a team would get the ball on its own 30-yard line, where it's fourth and 15. The options are either to go for it and try to retain possession or punt. If you go for it and fall short, of course, the opposing team would take over with good field position.

In essence, a punt replaces the kickoffs. "The fact is," Goodell said during the meeting, "it's a much different end of the play." Punts have lower injury rates because the players bunch at the line of scrimmage and run down the field together toward the player making the return. They don't charge at each other as they do on kickoffs, which reduces opportunities for violent smashes. "It's an off-the-wall idea," says Goodell. "It's different and makes you think differently. It did me."

Not so off the wall is a rule that takes effect next year requiring all players to wear thigh pads and knee pads. Some football experts believe that a lot of knee-to-head injuries occur because players are prone to making tackles with their head because the head, unlike other areas of the body, is fully protected. "That's a theory we've talked a lot about," says Goodell. "If you feel safest with your head, you're more likely to use it." Many players feel they are faster without pads weighing them down. Goodell wants to standardize the equipment. "We know what's going to happen," Goodell tells McKay. "They're taking it to the tailor, and it's going to be modified." James Harrison--who else?--ridiculed this measure. "I don't know how many people's career has been ended on a thigh or knee bruise," Harrison said in October.

Even if punts replace kickoffs, if violent tackling is further toned down, if players wear more padding, the game will still feel and look like football. The game's beauty and drama--and hard-hitting appeal--are still there. And that's exactly what Goodell is going for. "We're a far, far cry from touch football," he says.

Some fans, however, are still convinced he's running in that direction. As he walked off the MetLife Stadium field before that Jets-Dolphins game after schmoozing with Dolphins majority owner Stephen Ross and limited partner Fergie, lead singer of the Black Eyed Peas, a Jets fan gave him an earful. "Leave the Saints alone! Leave the Saints alone!" the man shouted from the first row. "They are playing football." The fan was practically pleading, Yo, Roger, stay out of the game. Goodell smiled, gave the guy a wave and kept walking. He's not stopping anytime soon. "A lot of times, you know the right thing to do," Goodell says later. "But you have to have the courage to do it. And I think that's harder than it seems."

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