New NFL Kickoff Rule: What Has the NFL Changed for Fair Catches and Touchbacks?

What is the new NFL kickoff rule for the 2023 season, and how has it changed the shape of fair catches and touchbacks?

With the NFL season set to kick off in one day, let’s take a moment to review the new kickoff rule that has changed once again. As a result of the new change, a play considered by many to be one of the most entertaining on the field is heading toward being all but extinct.

During this year’s Spring Meeting, NFL owners came together to vote on a new measure that many believe will significantly alter how kickoffs work.

Let’s take a look at the specifics of the new rule changes 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 NFL kickoff rule will allow 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 and will now see its way into the NFL game.

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, giving them an automatic 24 yards with the action. 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, or missed blocks.

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The counter to this is that it also removes the chance of breaking a big return or even finding the end zone on that play if exercised, but one could look at the percentage of kick return touchdowns per season and their risk-reward compared to being gifted the ball at the 25-yard line.

Getting the rule passed was certainly not easy for the league. With good reason, special teams coaches rallied hard against the rule, and teams with head coaches that place a premium on special teams were unwilling to budge on the matter.

In the end, the NFL got the rule passed, but on the provision that it is a one-year change that will be reevaluated next offseason. Decision-makers will look to see just how much this change impacts the game.

Why Did the NFL Change the Kickoff Rule?

The NFL’s reason for the change is that doing so will reduce the risk of injuries, especially concussions, on kickoffs, which are viewed as one of the most dangerous plays in the game. The hope is that this will significantly reduce that risk for participating players.

Both NFL competition committee member Rich McKay and NFL Exec Jeff Miller specified safety as the main reason 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, which in their mind, is well worth the change for the safety of their players.

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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, and the eye on the league as it pertains to those matters, 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. They believe that eventually, this rule change will settle in comfortably amongst teams with pushback decreasing over time.

Much like any change that affects in-game strategy, the question now is whether this rule will have the impact the league hopes for 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 ends up being the case, then we may see the NFL take an even more radical step when the rule comes up for review next year. While it might technically be a one-year trial, that would appear to be more so the case in name than reality with many believing some variation of this change being in place for the long haul.

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.

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