NFL owners approve wild new kickoff rule: Here’s everything you need to know about the one-year trial run


March 27, 2024

The NFL kickoff will be undergoing a dramatic change for the 2024 season.

CBS Sports lead NFL insider Jonathan Jones has reported that the NFL’s 32 owners officially approved the new kickoff proposal at the Annual League Meeting on Tuesday. It looked like the owners were originally going to vote on the rule Monday, but several were apprehensive about making such a dramatic change to the NFL rule book. The NFL decided to hold off for 24 hours before voting on the kickoff rule and delaying the vote ended up working.

In the end, the rule passed 29-3 with only the Raiders, 49ers and Packers voting against it.

Jones has reported that the rule has been approved on a one-year trial basis only, which means the NFL can scrap it if the rule doesn’t lead to more returns, which is what the league is hoping to see.

The new kickoff is nothing like the old kickoff. The proposal alone was 9.5 pages long, so it’s a lot to digest.

With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at what the new rule entails and what the kickoff look like going forward (You might want to bookmark this page in case you ever need an explainer on the new rule).

First, the formation will be quite different from anything you’ve ever seen before on a kickoff in an NFL game.

Of the 22 players on the field for the play, 21 of them will be in the receiving team’s territory. That number will break down like this for the kicking team:

Kicker will be by himself. The kicker will set up the ball at his own 35-yard line and after kicking it, he won’t be able to cross midfield until the ball is in play. The ball will be considered in play if the returner catches it or if the ball hits the ground in the landing zone or if the ball gets to the end zone.

Coverage team will be lined up together. The other 10 players on the kicking team will be lining up at the receiving team’s 40-yard line. Each player has to have at least one foot on the 40 before the play can start. Also, the kicking team has to have five players on each side of ball, so they won’t be able to load up to one side.

As for the receiving team, their setup will be slightly different.

Most of the receiving team will be at the 35-yard line. The receiving team has a 5-yard setup zone that runs from its own 30 to its 35-yard line. Seven players from the receiving team must have their foot on the 35-yard line. The receiving team can also have two more players who are in the setup zone, but who aren’t touching the 35-yard line. Those two players will be lined up outside the hashes.

Receiving team can have two returners. The receiving team can put one or two returners back to field the football, but if they decide to utilize just one returner, then the extra player will have to line up in the set-up zone between the 30- and 35-yard line.
If you are someone who learns better with visualization, you can see below what the setup will look like.

For a kickoff after a safety, the formations above will stay the same, The only thing that will change will be where the kicker lines up. After a safety, the kicker will be required to kick off from his own 20. If a ball goes out of bounds on this kick, the receiving team will get the ball at the kicking team’s 45-yard line.

If there are any penalties on the kickoff, the kicker will be the only one who moves, everyone else will line up in their same spot.

Now that we have the kickoff and return formations out of the way, let’s get to the next part of the rule: The landing zone.

What is the landing zone? This is the part of the field that’s between the receiving team’s goal line and the receiving team’s 20-yard line. The kickoff coverage team and the blockers on the receiving team CAN’T MOVE until the football has either been fielded by a returner or touches the ground in the landing zone.

No fair catches. If the kickoff is caught on the fly in the landing zone, then there will definitely be a return, because fair catches are prohibited under the new proposal.
The new rule will also add three different types of touchbacks and this is where things get kind of confusing, so you’re definitely going to want to pay attention here.

Touchback at the 40-yard line. If the kickoff doesn’t make it past the return team’s 20-yard line, then the ball is considered out of bounds and the return team will get possession at its own 40-yard line (or 25 yards from the spot of the kick). If the ball is kicked out of bounds, the receiving team will get the ball at its own 40 or the spot where the ball went out of bounds.

Touchback at the 30-yard line. If the ball is kicked into the end zone on the fly, then the receiving team gets a touchback at its own 30-yard line. This touchback also applies if the ball is kicked out of the back of the end zone. When the rule was originally proposed, this touchback was supposed to be at the 35, but it was tweaked over the weekend to make it the 30, according to
Touchback at the 20-yard line. If a ball hits the ground in the landing zone and then rolls into the end zone — and doesn’t get returned — then the touchback will only go out to the 20.

These new touchback rules are in place to encourage more returns. The rule is essentially incentivizing kickers to kick a returnable ball. If they have a ball go in the end zone on the fly, the receiving team gets a touchback at the 30, which wouldn’t be ideal for the kicking team.

With the new kickoff rule passing, that means the NFL will also be getting a new onside kick. Since the kickoff HAS to make it to the receiving team’s 20-yard line to be considered in play, that means the NFL’s previous onside kick rule can’t be used.

So how do you fix that? Under the new rule, onside kicks will only be allowed in the fourth quarter, and only if a team is trailing. Also, the team that wants to attempt the onside kick will have to “declare” that it’s trying it. This will eliminate the surprise onside kick.

Finally, if you’re still confused about any of this, you can check out this video that the NFL put together on the new rule.

Now that this rule has officially been approved that means will see it on the field as soon as August when the NFL preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game between the Bears and Texans. Special teams coaches around the NFL are going to have a busy offseason because every single one of them will be looking for ways to best take advantage of the league’s wild new kickoff rule.

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