Could the NFL Do Away With Kick Returns? Roger Goodell Says No, Which Is Great News for Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals were one of the best teams at covering kicks in 2023, and Darrin Simmons, like the commissioner, wants the play to stay in the game.

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has vacillated between skeptical and critical every time the NFL makes changes to the kickoff rules, so there likely were some mixed emotions following commissioner Roger Goodell’s Super Bowl news conference Monday in Las Vegas.

The league floated a trial rule in 2023, allowing returners to fair catch a kickoff that did not reach the end zone, resulting in the team starting its possession at its own 25-yard line, the same as if the kick went out of the back of the end zone.

Commissioner, Bengals Want Kick Returns in the Game

The number of kickoff returns plummeted to the lowest in league history with 587, which was 38% fewer than the previous low of 938 in 2019, when there were 16 fewer games.

The previous low in a 17-game season was 1,013 in 2022, meaning there was a 42% decline from last season to this one.

A reporter asked Goodell whether there would be more significant changes and where he thinks kickoffs are headed. While many of Goodell’s answers were clouded in ambiguity, he made it clear where he stands on kickoffs.

“I thought this rule was necessary for the one year because we need to innovate,” he said. “We need to work with our coaches and our competition committee and those across the league to find a way to keep the kickoff in the game. It’s an exciting play. It’s important for us.”

Simmons has never sat on the competition committee, which proposes new rules for the owners to vote on. But six years ago, he was one of a select few coaches invited to league headquarters to offer input when the league started looking at ways to curb the frequency of injuries, especially of the head and neck variety, on kickoff returns.

Simmons was vocal then, and he continues to be, about keeping the play in the game. Those 2018 meetings in New York were when the idea of fair-catch allowance was first proposed.

Simmons was against it then and remains so, but he did approve of other measures such as eliminating the wedge blocks.

“Some of these suggestions, hopefully, they do go through,” he said in 2018. “I think they are going to be changes, but not outlandish changes to the play. It’s been a play since the beginning of football. We still want to keep it that way. It’s still going to be an exciting play without making a mockery of what the play and game is meant to be.”

The decline in returns began in 2011, when owners voted to move the kickoff from the 35-yard line to the 30. The number of returns went from 2,033 in 2010 to 1,375 in 2011, a difference of 34%.

In 2016, the league moved the starting point after a kickoff touchback from the 20-yard line to the 25, resulting in negligible change as returns dropped from 1,080 to 1,035.

While the fair-catch rule led to the number of returns plummeting, it did introduce varying approaches in strategy.

Some teams took the approach of the Dallas Cowboys and just blasted kickoffs for touchbacks at a 91% clip (99 of 109). Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there was the Green Bay Packers, who had just 43% of their kickoffs (37 of 86) end in touchbacks.

The Bengals were dead center, ranking 16th at 77% (63 of 82).

But Simmons’ frustration is understandable because his units traditionally have been among the league’s best at limiting kickoff returns. And the Bengals were again in 2023, ranking second in the NFL by allowing just 17 yards per return, trailing only the New York Jets (15.4).

Simmons has been adamant about introducing changes incrementally rather than stomping the brakes to go from 60 to 0. He appears to have an ally in Goodell based on what the commissioner said Monday.

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“When you see a higher injury rate for that play, you can’t ignore that,” Goodell said. “And we haven’t yet found that solution. I think we’ve proven over the last several years you can make the game safer and more exciting at the same time. That’s our objective here, and I’m confident we’ll get to that.

“It’s going to take a little work,” he continued. “This was a one-year rule. So I hope that that will be a major focus this spring.”

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