The NFL has pushed the return of the kickoff into irrelevance with a priority on player safety.
The existence of the kickoff itself remains under careful review.
League owners voted Tuesday in favor of a year-long trial of an improved touchback rule that will give the receiving team the ball in their own 25 with a fair reception of a kickoff anywhere behind that line. of yard.
“There will be a lot more work to be done on how we can continue to evolve going forward,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Can we continue to keep this play going in an exciting way, but more importantly, in a safe way? There’s a lot of work to do.”
The proposal passed despite strong pushback from coaches and players across the league who argued the rule change would create uglier plays with firecrackers and corner kicks that would make fair catches impossible.
“I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve seen these kinds of discussions about health and safety,” said Atlanta Falcons CEO Rich McKay, who is chairman of the competition committee. “We tend to get to the right place, but it’s never that comfortable.”
The NFL said its statistical models predict the kickoff return rate in 2023 under the new rule will drop from 38% to 31% and the rate of concussions on the most dangerous play in the sport will drop by 15%. %. Concussions on kickoffs occur more than twice as often as on plays from scrimmage, and that rate has increased significantly in the past two years, McKay said.
One of the reasons for the recent increase in head injuries? The improved ability of kickers to be able to strategically hang the ball longer and higher in front of the goal line, allowing the coverage more time to make a tackle and keeping the start of the opponent’s drive deeper than 25 for a touchback in the end zone.
“We understand that there will be some injuries involved in professional football and soccer at all levels. We’re just trying to mitigate those risks,” said Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, who is on the competition committee that recommended approval of the ruler.
The NFL basically copied a rule that was recently installed in college football.
“Not to say there won’t be some unintended consequences, but to stand by and continue to do nothing was unacceptable,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy. “There may be more to come, because both kickoff and punt continue to have higher injury rates than run or pass plays, and sometimes by a substantial margin. We need to keep watching those plays.”
McKay acknowledged that there’s no guarantee kickoff will forever be a part of the sport. The NFL will continue to examine alternatives, including what is used in the spring leagues. The XFL has only five yards between the kicking and returning teams, with a movement ban until the returner has fielded the ball.
“You don’t want this play out of the game, because special teams has been a very big part of our game and has been a very big part of a lot of players’ and coaches’ careers,” McKay said. “People like it. We just have to find ways to make the plays safer.”
The league moved touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line in 2016. Over the past 12 seasons since kickoff tees were moved from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, only 53 returns have resulted in touchdowns. There were 20 kickoff return scores in 2010 before the change.
“I’m sure it’s like a good rule of thumb for the NFL. They always have their reasons why they put things up,” said Green Bay’s Keisean Nixon, who had one of four kickoff return TDs in the 2022 season. It’s never fair to catch anything, so I don’t know.”
Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus predicted a tactical shift toward firecracker, drop, and drive kicks.
“I suspect you will see more returns than less,” Eberflus said. “That’s just what I’m thinking right now, but we’ll see what happens.”