The NFL has pushed the kickoff return into irrelevance with a priority on player safety.
The existence of the startup itself is under careful review.
League owners voted Tuesday in favor of a one-year trial of an improved touchback rule that will give the receiving team the ball at its own 25 with a fair catch on a kickoff to anywhere behind that yard line.
“There’s going to be a lot more work to do on how we can continue to evolve going forward,” said commissioner Roger Goodell. “We can continue to keep this play going in an exciting way, but more importantly in a safe way? There’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done.”
The proposal passed despite strong pushback from coaches and players around the league who argued the rule change will create uglier plays with bumps and corners that will 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 go to the right place, but it’s never that comfortable.”
The NFL said its statistical models predict that the kickoff return rate in 2023 under the new rule will drop from 38 percent to 31 percent and that the rate of concussions on the sport’s most dangerous play will will reduce by 15%. Concussions on kickoffs occur more than twice as often as on swing plays, and that rate has increased significantly over the past two years, McKay said.
A reason for the recent increase in head injuries? The improved ability of kickers to be able to strategically hang the ball higher and higher in front of the goal line, allowing coverage more time to make a tackle and keep the opponent’s kickoff deeper than the 25 per to a touchback in the end zone.
“We understand there are going to be some injuries related to pro football and football at all levels. We’re just trying to mitigate those risks,” said Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, who is on the competition committee that recommended the approval of the rule.
The NFL essentially copied a rule that was recently installed in college football.
“Not to say there won’t be unintended consequences, but to stand still 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 the throw and the punt continue to have higher injury rates than the run or pass plays, and sometimes by a substantial margin. We need to keep looking at those plays.”
McKay acknowledged that there’s no guarantee the kickoff will be a part of the sport forever. The NFL will continue to examine alternatives, including the one used in spring leagues. The XFL has only five yards between the kicking and return teams, with no movement until the returner has thrown the ball.
“You don’t want that play to be out of the game, because special teams has been a really good part of our game and it’s been a really good part of a lot of players’ and coaches’ careers,” McKay said. “People love it. We just have to find ways to make the plays safer.”
The league moved touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25 in 2016. In the last 12 seasons since kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line from the 30, only 53 punt returns have resulted in touchdowns . In 2010, before the change, there were 20 initial return results.
“I’m sure it’s like a good rule for the NFL. They always have their reasons why they put things in there,” said Green Bay’s Keisean Nixon, who had one of four kickoff return TDs in the 2022 season. I haven’t caught anything, so I don’t know.”
Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus predicted a tactical shift toward squib, drop and drive kicks.
“I suspect you’ll see more returns than less,” Eberflus said. “That’s what I’m thinking right now, but we’ll see what happens.”
Report from The Associated Press.
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