Bobby Okereke of the Giants tackles Rhamondre Stevenson of the Patriots during the fourth...

Bobby Okereke of the Giants tackles Rhamondre Stevenson of the Patriots during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 26, 2023. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Giants coaches, like most others around the league, were finally able to get their new playbooks in the hands of players on Monday when Phase I of the offseason training program began. Of more pressing concern, though, might have been introducing the players to the new rulebook.

The NFL passed a serious of adjustments this offseason altering how the game will be played and officiated, most notably last month’s approval of rules that banned certain types of hip-drop tackles and completely overhauled the schematics on kickoffs.

New Giants special teams coordinator Michael Ghobrial hadn’t even met many of the players before Monday, and when he did he was peppered with many questions about the revamped play, not all of which had clear answers.

“It’s foreign territory to a lot of people,” Ghobrial said. “Just in passing, there's a lot of questions. It's exciting when it comes down to it because it's so new, right, and your brain starts to go a million miles per hour because you're thinking of all the intricacies that go on in a specific play. You have so many questions about it and your brain, whatever way it works, you start to think of like, OK, could this be the advantage, could this be the advantage? It's exciting but players have come up and you know they have simple questions and to the best of my knowledge, I'm going to give them those answers.”

Ghobrial, like many other special teams coaches around the league who helped design and push for the change, is a proponent of the new rules that borrow a lot from the XFL’s rules to limit the speed and distance players run and, ideally, reduce the risk of injury.

“I think the NFL has done a hell of a job in terms of taking out the speed and space of this play in terms of kickoff to keep guys healthier, which is a big deal, but ultimately bringing [back] a play that was almost dissolving with all the touchbacks and the fair catches that you were seeing,” he said. “It's exciting to kind of find the little nuances when it comes to that specific rule change… We'll do that this spring.”

New Giants defensive coordinator Shane Bowen seemed less enthusiastic about the hip-drop tackle ban and the play he will now have to teach his players to avoid.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be 100 percent avoidable at times,” Bowen said. “I hope it is, but at times you are going to be caught in some situations and those guys are going to do whatever they can to get the guy to the ground and it may happen.”

Because of the non-contact nature of the offseason program – and the general lack of live tackling even in preseason training camps – most of the teaching to comply with the new rule will come from film study and mental prep. Bowen said he and the staff have produced film cutups to show not only the illegal plays but the circumstances that led to them with the hope that Giants defenders can avoid those situations.

“We have to be able to teach from that so we can eliminate getting ourselves in those situations,” Bowen said. “If we have a good understanding of that I think that will lead to us hopefully being able to avoid it.”

“It’s definitely another thing for us to be aware of as defenders,” linebacker Bobby Okereke said. “You know, it's tough. They tell you to run your feet on tackles so you can run through this guy. At the end of the day, our job is to get the guy down. You know, it'll be an emphasis for us in training camp going forward, focusing on that. I assume it will be an acclimation period for all of us.”

Added Okereke on the reason for yet another rule change that protects offensive players: “It’s tough because player safety should always be the emphasis. But at the end of the day, we all have a job to do. This is how we get paid, we feed our families. This is our livelihood. It's kind of a tug-of-war between the two and just trusting the league office and everyone involved to come to the right conclusion.”

Besides being visually different, the new kickoff rule may also impact the way rosters are ultimately constructed as teams try to find players who can excel at what will be an entirely new skillset. The Giants are no exception in that regard.

“I think when you look at it globally, those are the baddest dudes back there, the most dangerous guys with the ball in their hands,” Ghobrial said of returners. “You have to evolve your scheme. It's got to feature those guys, whether it's a guy that hits it a million miles per hour, or whether it's a jitterbug-type guy that can make you miss. I think both have relevance with this new rule change. It will be exciting to see what we've got.”

And, for the next few months, trying to explain all of it to the players.

The NFL's new kickoff rule for 2024

Under the newly adopted rule, kickers will continue to kick from the 35-yard line as they have, but the other 10 players on the coverage team will essentially be offsides, lining up at the receiving team's 40. At least nine members of the return team will line up in a "setup zone" directly in front of them between the 35- and 30-yard lines. Up to two returners can line up in a "landing zone" between the goal line and the 20-yard line, but teams can also elect to have one returner.

No one other than the kicker and returners can move until the ball hits the ground or hits a player inside the landing zone, and the kicker cannot cross midfield until that happens. Kickoffs that hit in the landing zone must be returned; if the ball rolls into the end zone and is downed it will be placed at the 20. Touchbacks will be marked at the 30-yard line, and no fair catches will be allowed. Any kick that falls short of the landing zone will treated as if it went out of bounds and be spotted at the 40.

All penalties on scoring plays will be enforced on the point after attempt and will not carry over to the kickoff. On the rare penalty that carries over to a kickoff, the set-up and landing zones will not change, nor will the alignment of the 10 kickoff team players and all the receiving team players. Only the kicker's positioning will be moved.

The rule eliminates two strategic elements from the game: surprise onside kicks and squibs that were used to burn seconds off the clock at the end of games and halves. Teams will be allowed to employ traditional onside kicks but only twice per game and only in the fourth quarter. They will have to inform officials and the opponent of their intent to attempt the play.

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