Everything you need to know about the rule changes at Kickoff

To generate more kickoff returns and maintain safety, the NFL’s changes will be “completely new for everyone.”

ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Rich McKay joined the NFL competition committee 29 years ago and is the longest-serving member in its history. As he took a moment to reflect Tuesday, he could think of only one other rule change that matched the importance of the initial review that owners approved that morning by a 29-3 vote.

“And that was replay,” MacKay noted of the decision to bring back replay review in 1998, marking the continued use of the technology to determine the outcome of games. Otherwise, the changes to the kickoff — a radical and aesthetic redesign that the NFL hopes will double the return rate and reduce injury rates — are as big as they are.

“It will be completely new for everyone,” said New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who worked closely with the committee on the redesign. “But more importantly, we feel like we’ve made this play extremely relevant and, more importantly, safer.”

ESPN has been scripting this kickoff approach since the XFL developed it in 2020 and saw increased interest from the NFL last summer. Here’s what you need to know about the version of the one-year experiment the NFL adopted Tuesday, based on three days of reporting at the league’s annual meeting.

What’s different about this kickoff structure?

The cornerstone of this approach is to line up most players downfield before the shot, rather than running them there while the ball is in the air. That change should reduce the number of high-speed crashes that cause injuries. The kicker will continue to kick from his 35-yard line, but the remaining 10 members of the kicking team will line up at the receiving team’s 40-yard line. At least nine members of the returning team will be between their 35- and 30-yard lines in what is called the “staging zone”.

and then what?

Ideally, the ball will land between the 20-yard line and the goal line, called the “landing zone”, where the receiving team will have one or (more likely) two returns. If the ball falls into the end zone or leaves the end zone, the resulting touchback will be determined at the 30-yard line. If it is hit out of bounds, the ball will be placed at 40.

What about coverage?

No one except the kicker and returner may move until the ball is caught or hits the ground. This will certainly create some awkward seconds with 19 or 20 players standing still while the ball is in the air.

“It feels a little weird,” Rizzi said. “This is not the football we all grew up watching.”

How do those players know when to walk away?

Rizzi acknowledged that the kicking team will be able to see whether the ball hits the ground or returns to the ground and is likely to have a slight advantage. That question was one of many discussed by nearly 60 special teams coaches at the NFL Combine in February.

“I think some coaches will teach their units to work and respond to the kickoff team in the setup zone,” Rizzi said. “And I think some guys probably have their sights set on the backfield and their sights on a returner, and they’re going to continue to split up. So again, talking to all the coaches, I think it’s going to be one of those things. That’s what they work on. “Maybe the camp can have a few different approaches and see what works best. Work on this will be in progress.”

How will this help in reviving Kickoff?

The NFL spent more than a decade trying to address the high injury rates on kickoffs by adopting rules designed to reduce returns through touchbacks and fair catches. By 2023, only 21% of kickoffs were returned.

Mackey estimated that 50% to 60% of kickoffs would return in 2024. This would add approximately 1,000 plays to the NFL season.

Wasn’t the original projection between 80% and 90%?

Yes, but the committee made an adjustment to the original proposal this week, moving the touchback point to the 35-yard line to 30 yards, a compromise that helped the proposal garner enough support to pass. This would reduce the incentive to avoid touchbacks, but it would still represent a large bump in the return rate.

“It’s good for us to start with this rule,” Mackey said. “If it works the way we think, it will continue to be successful in many ways.”

Does a distance of 5 yards really make much difference?

Yes. Some coaches want to avoid returns without serious point consequences, such as the 35-yard line.

Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Faisal admitted, “A team may not feel good about his ability to cover kicks that week,” or the team may not feel like he is a great returner or kick return team. Is kicking. A kick that has incredible speed. At first, you might just want a touchback.”

What about a side kick?

Teams must declare their intention to use an internal structure, which will be similar to the traditional structure used until this season. This rules out the possibility of a surprise onside kick, a big draw that is not used as often as it might seem. For example, in 2023, there were two of the 272 regular season games.

What about ground kicks?

Under the new rule, any kick that is downed before the 20-yard line will be immediately fouled and scored at the 40-yard line. This would eliminate the use of the squib in most situations.

“Those strategic parts of the (old) kickoffs in the middle and late games, where you can take some time off the clock with ground kicks and things like that, that element will be gone as well,” Rizzi said.

What are the implications of this for the employees here?

The educated guess among coaches this week is that most teams will use two returners because of the impact on field position if the ball hits the ground in the landing zone. A member of the team that kicked may beat the single player returning it and, because it is a live ball, may recover it to change possession. If the ball falls into the field of play, then rolls into the end zone and a touchback occurs, it will be scored on the 20-yard line instead of the 30-yard line.

For that reason, and because of the expected increase in returns, the value of kickoff returners is going to “skyrocket,” Faisal said.

Teams may also recalibrate their depth makeup to account for the fact that there will be more in-line blocks and fewer runs on kickoffs. One coach suggested that offensive and defensive linemen could be used more often in those situations.

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell said he and special teams coordinator Dave Fipp are excited about the potential for strategic innovation.

“You want to feel like you’re going to do something unique or something they’re not ready to do,” Campbell said. “And that’s really what it’s all about, right? You want to try to find something that they’re not ready for, that they’re not ready for, whatever it is. Maybe it’s been done, maybe “It may not have been done.”

Are all teams behind this?

Not completely.

San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York was one of three owners who voted against the proposal. On Tuesday he indicated he was fully in favor of making it “more of a royal affair rather than a ceremonial affair”. But, considering what he called “drastic changes”, York expressed hope that there would be a way to modify the rule during the season if unexpected immediate consequences arose.

“I’m 100 percent in favor of trying to bring that back into our game,” York said. “And I think they’ve put a lot of time and a lot of effort into trying to make something work. I’m sure there will be adjustments, and I’d be willing to make changes if I needed to in the future: ‘Here’s to Star Season, And then we’re going to revise it at the end of the year.”

Would field position be one of those possible outcomes?


According to Faisal, the average initial position of units will be highly unpredictable given the potential variation in return strategy. According to the numbers they provided Tuesday, 80% of offensive drives last season started around the 25-yard line. Projections for the new rule indicate that 40% of drives will start at the 30-yard line or more. The other 30% will start inside the 20-yard line. And the remaining 30% will start between 20 and 30 yards.

“I think there was a little bit of fear for some teams, ‘I don’t know if the ball starts at 12-25 or 39,'” he said. “But I think the unpredictability of it is also exciting. So you get a lot more variety and drivability with this model than the previous model, which I think is cool.”

How much fewer injuries will there be?

The key metric the NFL is tracking is the collision rate, which has been three to five times higher than normal offensive plays for kickoffs over the past decade due to the nature of the collisions.

“The goal,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, “is to get the injury and injury rates from scrimmage the same as a run or a pass. Will it be a little higher? Will it be the same? Will it be a little less?

“We’ll have to see how teams strategize, but we’ve created mechanisms by bringing players together and narrowing down the space we think should be in that area. Then, if we need to play and find some After we can optimize it for year after year of data, we’ll be fine. Help? Sure.”

ESPN’s Stephen Holder and Nick Wagner contributed to this story.

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