NFL approves significant changes to kickoffs, hoping for more returns and better safety

USA Today
March 26, 2024

The NFL has adopted a landmark rule change Tuesday to kickoff plays that will take some time for your football eyes to get used to. But the hope is to revive a once-exciting play with more returns and player safety at the forefront.

The rule is designed to increase the number of kickoff returns per game while attempting to make the play safer for players by negating the need to run or defend the length of the field.

Instead of players trotting onto the field to watch a kicker sail a football into the end zone, special teams players will line up 5 yards apart from each other at the 40- and 35-yard lines and wait until a kick lands or is touched by one of two returners.

What happens next? The returner has a chance to make a move past a wall of defenders, where a straightway to the end zone awaits.

“What has people spooked about it is the unknown, but that’s what excites me,” said Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell.

“This is going to be must-see TV. It’s going to be brand new to everybody,” said New Orleans Saints special teams coach Darren Rizzi, who was instrumental in presenting the rule change to league members during NFL owners meetings this week.

“Whether you like it or don’t like it, you’re going to watch it.”

What is the new NFL kickoff rule?
• Kickers will kick off from their own 35-yard line. The 10 other players from the kicking team will line up on the opposing team’s 40-yard line.
• The receiving team will have at least nine players line up in the “setup zone” between the 35- and 30-yard lines. Two returners will be stationed in a landing zone, from the 20-yard line to the goal line.
• No players (except the kicker and returners) can move until the ball is received by a returner.
• Returners can return the football wherever it lands.
• A touchback at the 20-yard line would occur if the ball touches the ground or player in the landing zone, rolls beyond the goal line and downed in the end zone.
• A touchback could occur at the 30-yard line if the ball goes out of bounds behind the receiving team’s goal line, if it strikes the goalpost, or lands at or beyond the goal line and downed in the end zone.

Why is the rule change so important?
The new rule passed with a 29-3 vote. It will be implemented during the 2024 season, and revisited next offseason.

“I think we’re still going to have to tinker with it. But I think it’ll be a big improvement and bring the play back to being a relevant play,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Here are the facts: The NFL reported at least 1,970 touchbacks occurred on 2,698 kickoff plays during the 2023 season, a rate of 21.8 % – a dramatic decline from the 88.7% rate of kickoffs returned in 2003.

“You have 2000 dead plays,” Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “People don’t want to see that. Coaches don’t want to coach that. Players don’t want to play that.”

During Super Bowl 58 earlier this year, there were 13 touchback plays with no action.

“We’re in business of creating an entertaining product, and putting a product on the field that should be competitive in every moment. And we created a play that was no longer competitive,” NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay said. “Yes, it’s a big change. But the time has come to make that change.”

What will happen to onside kicks and surprise of them?
NFL teams will only be able to declare they want to pursue an onside kick in the fourth quarter of games. They can do it twice, too.

“If you’re trailing and want to kick a traditional onside kick, you have that right,” McKay said.

With the players from both sides lining up 5 yards apart, the idea of a surprise onside kick to catch the opposition off-guard will be a thing of the past.

But the NFL suggests “surprise onside kicks” aren’t really part of the game much to begin with: Rizzi notes there were only two attempts in 2023, and four in the last five years. Overall, NFL teams have converted just two of 15 surprise onside kick attempts in recent memory.

How will the NFL adjust to new kickoff rule?
NFL teams wanted to have the kickoff rule implemented before the 2024 NFL draft to properly adjust their rosters before next season.

While some NFL teams have core special team players, the rule change will force every team to account for players they will need to make the most of the new rule.

“I think there’s a lot of things that we learn as we start to figure out schematically how does it affect and influence games,” said Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, who’s on the NFL’s competition committee.

“I think it’s good for the game, and I think all the intentions are in the right direction.”

Campbell says the new kickoff plays offer more chances to impact the games.

“Absolutely in favor of it because it gives us a chance to play special teams,” Campbell said.

“What happened last really, we felt like it took a significant amount of plays out the game, and you can’t make it up anywhere else.”

Added Reid: “It should be exciting and new.”

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