FOXBOROUGH — Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater is going on 11 years in football, and he has built his NFL career in part on a play the league is considering eliminating.
It’s the kickoff, on which Slater excels as a gunner. Slater said Tuesday that he wouldn’t be where he is in football without the play, and he’s sad that it could be done away with.
“I think you take away this play from football, you’re taking away . . . you’re changing the fabric of the game,” Slater said. “I think this play is part of the fabric of the game. And it really makes me ask the question, well, ‘Where do you go from here? What will happen next?’ ”
The reason the kickoff may go away is that it’s one of the most dangerous plays in football. It happens at high speed, and players collide with more momentum than they do on most other plays.
The NFL’s medical team presented information at the owners’ meetings in March that showed concussions occurring during kickoffs at five times the rate they do on other plays.
Slater used third and 1 as an example of another dangerous play, and while it’s true that many studies say that it’s the every-down, close-quarters hits that linemen experience dozens of times per game that may pose the greatest long-term risks, as a single play, there are few more dangerous than kickoffs.
“I understand, look, people are concerned with the long-term health and safety of the players, but no one is more concerned than the men who are actually out there doing it,” said Slater, who is also the Patriots’ player representative. “I don’t understand why we have to continue to look for alternatives, continue to put on a show.
“Those are just my thoughts on it. As you can tell, I feel strongly about it.”
The league has already tried to make kick returns less common by changing the touchback rule, an indication that if players continue to get hurt at the same rate on kickoffs, the play will eventually be taken out of the game.
It would be a loss for those who love kickoffs as exhilarating moments that showcase hard-working players such as Slater who don’t always feel the spotlight shining on them.
A time to bond
Slater was back in Foxborough for the start of the Patriots’ offseason training program after re-signing as a free agent last month.
It had been considered a near-lock that Slater, a career Patriot, would return, and he shocked many when he visited with the Steelers. Slater said he was grateful to have been re-signed.
“I’ll just say I’m excited to be back, thankful to be here,” Slater said. “It means a lot to me that I’m able to continue my career here and I’m thankful for the belief that you know, ownership, coaching staff and teammates, that they’ve shown in me. So I’m excited to be back.”
The thought of the special teams captain in a different uniform was jarring during an offseason when questions were asked about how much players enjoy playing in New England and for Bill Belichick, who is as demanding as he is accomplished.
That idea has come up in the context of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski missing workouts this week, something Slater said he couldn’t speak to on their behalf.
“This is a voluntary program,” Slater said. “Every year guys have different things that come up, whether it’s family issues, personal issues. I certainly don’t want to put myself in a position where I feel like I can speak for those two guys.”
For those present, Slater said offseason work provides an opportunity for bonding and for strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera to begin implementing his “great vision” for the team’s physical readiness to start the season.
He said it’s a good chance to get to know new teammates, many of whom do ask a lot of questions about what is, or is not, acceptable behavior as a Patriot.
“There are a lot of questions,” Slater said. “And I think questions are good.”