EAGAN, Minn. – The NFL has pushed the kickoff return further toward irrelevance with a priority on player safety.
The existence of the kickoff itself remains under careful review.
League owners voted Tuesday for a one-year trial of an enhanced touchback rule that will give the receiving team the ball at its own 25 with a fair catch of a kickoff anywhere behind that yard line.
“There’ll be a lot more work to be done about how we can continue to evolve going forward,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Can we continue to keep this play in an exciting way, but more importantly in a safe way? There’s a lot of work that’s going to be need to be done.”
The proposal passed despite strong pushback from coaches and players across the league who argued the rule change will create uglier plays with squib and corner kicks that make fair catches impossible.
“I’ve been in this for a long time. I’ve seen these type of health and safety discussions," said Atlanta Falcons chief executive officer Rich McKay, who is chairman of the competition committee. “We tend to get ourselves to the right place, but it’s never that comfortable.”
The NFL said its statistical models predict the return rate for kickoffs in 2023, under the new rule, will drop from 38% to 31% and that the rate of concussions on the sport's most dangerous play will be reduced by 15%. Concussions on kickoffs occur more than twice as often as on plays from scrimmage, and that rate has risen significantly over the last two years, McKay said.
One reason for the recent increase in head injuries? The improved skill 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 keep the opponent's drive start deeper than the 25 for an end-zone touchback.
“We understand that there’s going to be some injuries involved in professional football and football at all levels. We’re just trying to mitigate those risks," said Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, who sits on the competition committee that recommended the rule for approval.
The NFL essentially copied a rule that was recently installed in college football.
“Not to say that there won’t be some unintended consequences, but sitting still and continuing 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 kickoff and punt continue to have higher rates of injuries than run or pass plays — and sometimes by a substantial margin. We need to keep looking at those plays."
McKay acknowledged there's no guarantee that the kickoff will forever be a part of the sport. The NFL will continue to examine alternatives, including what's used in spring leagues. The XFL has only 5 yards between the kicking and returning teams, mostly downfield with a ban on movement until the returner has fielded the ball.
“You don’t want this play 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 like it. We’ve just got to find ways to make the plays safer.”
The league moved touchbacks up from the 20-yard line to the 25 in 2016. Over the last 12 seasons since kickoff tees were moved up to the 35-yard line from the 30, 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 for the NFL. They've always got their reasons why they put stuff in,” said Green Bay's Keisean Nixon, who had one of the four kickoff return TDs in the 2022 season. “I ain’t never fair caught anything, so I don’t know.”
Chicago 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 just what I’m thinking right now, but we’ll see what happens.”
Goodell expressed an openness to teams spending more extended time overseas, with the Jacksonville Jaguars scheduled this year for consecutive games in London.
“We’ll see what’s the impact to the Jaguars," Goodell said. "At some point, could we try three? Possibly.”
The NFL has expanded its global marketing program to include two more teams and four more countries, raising the totals to 21 and 14. The rights to France were awarded to the New Orleans Saints. Ireland and Northern Ireland went to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who got Mexico last year. Ireland also went to the Jaguars. The Atlanta Falcons became the fifth club to get Germany. The Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were granted rights to Austria and Switzerland.
The program was designed to help individual teams build their brands abroad through commercial activity and fan engagement similar to what they do in their home markets. Rights are granted by the league for at least a five-year term.
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Andrew Seligman in Lake Forest, Illinois, contributed to this report.
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