The NFL kickoff rule has changed once again, and gradually, a play considered by many to be one of the most entertaining on the field is heading toward being all but eradicated. During the 2023 Spring Meeting, NFL owners voted on and passed a new measure that many believe will drastically alter how kickoffs work. Let’s take a look at the specifics of the new rules when it comes to fair catches and touchbacks and why the NFL made the decision to alter kickoffs.
What Is the New NFL Kickoff Rule?
The new kickoff rule in the NFL will provide the opportunity for the ball to be placed at the 25-yard line on kickoffs if a fair catch is called behind the 25-yard line. If you are familiar with college football, this rule will not be new to you, as it has been used in college games since 2018.
In practice, this means that a player can call for and take a fair catch at the 1-yard line and advance the ball all the way out to the 25-yard line. That takes out a huge element of risk for a returning team, as there is now no danger of falling short of that mark or having a disastrous play like a fumble.
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Of course, the counter to that is that it also removes the chance of breaking a big return or even finding the end zone on that play.
Getting the rule passed was not easy for the NFL. Special teams coaches rallied hard against the rule, and teams with head coaches that place a premium on special teams were unwilling to budge. In the end, the NFL got the rule passed, but on the proviso that it is a one-year change that will be reevaluated next offseason.
Why Did the NFL Change the Kickoff Rule?
The reason given by the NFL for the change is that doing so will reduce the risk of injuries, especially concussions, on kickoffs. The kickoff is viewed as being one of the most dangerous plays in the game, and the hope is that this will significantly reduce that risk.
Both NFL competition committee member Rich McKay and NFL Exec Jeff Miller specified safety highly when they spoke to the media immediately after the rule had passed.
Miller told reporters that “the kickoff play has the highest rate of concussion year after year” and that the NFL “can’t stand by and do nothing.” The numbers Miller discussed suggest that the NFL hopes they can reduce the injury rate without negatively impacting the game.
In his statement, Miller said that “kicks that they were hanging to the 5-yard line or inside and getting this advantage, the average start line for those kicks being returned was the 24.3. That is 0.7 different from the 25, so it’s not like there’s a huge advantage here.”
Meanwhile, based on their modeling, the NFL believes that kickoffs could drop by around 7%, from 38% to 31%. While that may seem like a minor difference, it could result in as much as a 15% drop in the overall concussion rate.
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Those numbers indicate why the NFL did not feel like it could sit by and do nothing. With a heavy focus on concussions in the NFL, knowing those numbers and not acting to change things could have opened the league up to major legal trouble down the road.
It may not sit well with the players and coaches in the league right now, but in the long-term, the NFL believes it is doing the right thing, or at least looking like it tried to do the right thing.
The question now is whether this rule will have the impact the league hopes or if players and coaches will be able to work out a way to make these new rules advantageous in some other way.
If that is the case, then we may see the NFL take an even more radical step when they review this rule next year. While it might technically be a one-year trial, that would appear to be more so the case in name than reality.
One way or another, the NFL is taking steps to reduce the risks of kickoffs as best they can. From here, realistically, the only way is to a more “watered down” version of the play as opposed to a return to what we saw in 2022 and before.