College football has passed a new rule banning "wedge blocking" on kickoffs. Wedge blocking involves the blockers running shoulder to shoulder to form a high-speed shield for the kickoff returner, which forces the kicking team to employ "wedge busters," who hurl their bodies into the wedge to, well, bust it. Unsurprisingly, kickoffs created a disproportionate number of concussions, so it's appropriately banned.
More than 100 years ago, college football adopted rules to prevent "the flying wedge," which was the same basic tactic, but applied on every down. Dr. Saturday explains:
Banning the wedge is like removing an appendix, excising the oldest remnant of truly old-school, pre-forward pass football from the modern game. At the turn of the last century, the full-scale wedge was a prominent catalyst for the essential reforms in equipment, formations and strategy (see: the forward pass) that have defined the game for the last 100 years, mainly because the results of defenders "busting" the wedge were just too bloody to sustain. You can almost hear the skulls thudding against unadorned kneecaps in this account of the unveiling of military strategist Lorin E. Deland's "fling wedge" during the 1892 Harvard-Yale game:
Deland divided Harvard's players into two groups of five men each at opposite sidelines. Before the ball was even in play team captain Bernie Trafford signaled the two groups. Each unit sprang forward, at first striding in unison, then sprinting obliquely toward the center of the field. Simultaneously, spectators leapt to their feet gasping.
Restricted by the rules, Yale's front line nervously held its position.
After amassing twenty yards at full velocity, the "flyers" fused at mid-field, forming a massive human arrow. Just then, Trafford pitched the ball back to his speedy halfback, Charlie Brewer. At that moment, one group of players executed a quarter turn, focusing the entire wedge toward Yale's right flank. Now both sides of the flying wedge pierced ahead at breakneck speed, attacking Yale's front line with great momentum. Brewer scampered behind the punishing wall, while Yale's brave defenders threw themselves into its dreadful path.
That was on a kickoff, but in the absence of the motion rules that followed, the "flying wedge" became a staple on scrimmage plays, as well. In practice, it looked like this, with the offensive linemen (bottom right) hustling toward the line before the snap to create an impenetrable mass surrounding the ball carrier (in this case, RH, or right halfback) at the snap (top right):
Rules outlawing "wedge" plays were introduced as early as 1894 (too violent for the 1890s), and eventually forward motion behind the line of scrimmage was outlawed completely to prevent the offense from getting a vicious running start before the play. But through all the reforms, the innovations, the movements to spread out, throw, misdirect, get the ball downfield and exploit individual match-ups, the wedge concept has remained as the ultimate test of wills on kickoffs, the sporting equivalent of a kamikaze mission, the reason that special-teamers — especially the one or two Steve Tasker types on every NFL roster who are there only to play special teams — are always the most insane players in the locker room.
I bet that it won't be long before they just ban kickoffs altogether. Football is inherently violent, but kickoffs create an unusually violent situation where players build tremendous forward momentum before colliding. I think the game would do just fine with the offense starting at the twenty yard line after every score. It would also be one less chance for the networks to stop the game with a commercial.