One of the NFL’s Most Exciting Plays is Trending Towards Extinction

Wall Street Journal

May 23, 2023

When the NFL approved a new rule for kickoff returns Tuesday, it had a clear goal in boosting player
safety. But the new policy also has a clear consequence: further diminishing one of the most exhilarating
plays in the sport. 
The rule, implemented for this year only, allows players to call for a fair catch and give their offense the
ball on their own 25-yard-line no matter where they’re standing behind that point for the catch.
Previously, kick returners were allowed to get that benefit through a touchback only if the ball went into
the end zone. 
For years, league executives have sought to remedy the fact that kickoff returns produce a
disproportionate number of injuries, especially concussions, which occur almost twice as frequently as
they do on running or passing plays. But at the same time, these modifications project to whittle away
the relevancy of kickoffs. Going forward, a player can field a kickoff at the 2-yard-line and simply call for
a fair catch to have it moved forward. 
Negotiating the tension over how one of the game’s most exciting plays is also its most dangerous has
been a difficult task for the NFL. The early indicators are also that this change isn’t popular among
special teams personnel, who are already bemoaning the kickoff’s demise. 
“Peace out to the kickoff…hope you guys enjoyed them while they existed,” Carolina Panthers punter
Johnny Hekker tweeted Tuesday. 
Even before this change, kickoff returns were trending the way of leather helmets. This past season,
only 37.5% of kickoffs were brought back, according to Stats. Just two decades earlier, that figure was
above 90%. The league’s modeling projects that it will fall to 31% this year because of the new rule. 
The downturn coincided with previous rules changes designed to make a violent sport safer. Kickoffs
have been a particular focus for over a decade because they involve players from both teams running
directly at each other as fast as they can. 
In 2009, modifications prevented three or more players from forming a wedge to block for the returner.
A couple of years later, the kickoff line was moved forward five yards in a more direct attempt to reduce
the number of returns. And it worked: the return rate fell from 80.1% in 2010 to 53.5% in 2011. 

But even with a reduced number of returns, the play has remained an outlier for its outsize number of
injuries. Jeff Miller, an executive vice president with the NFL who oversees health and safety, said the
league projects that the new change will reduce concussions by 15% on kickoffs. 
“The data is very clear about the higher rate of injury on that play,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
said Tuesday. “We’ve been talking about it for several years. We have not made a lot of progress on this
“This is a step that we think is appropriate to address that,” Goodell added. 
Meanwhile, between the changes to return blocking and the fewer kicks actually being brought back,
the thrill of seeing a guy bring the ball back for a score has become a rare sight. There were only six
kickoff returns for a touchdown last season—including the surreal scene when the Bills brought one
back on the first play of their first game after Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse.

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