NFL owners voted to approve a new hybrid kickoff rule with the intention of making the plays safer and more exciting. NewsdayTV's Tom Rock has more. Credit: Newsday

ORLANDO, Fla. — Ushering in one of the most radical changes to the optics and strategies of the game in decades, perhaps going back as far as the advent of the forward pass, NFL owners voted to approve a new hybrid kickoff rule on Tuesday with the intention of making the plays both safer and more exciting.

“We feel this is a great day for the NFL,” Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzim said Tuesday. Rizzim is one of the coaches who worked closely with the competition committee on the proposal. “We’ve taken a play that’s essentially been dying over the course of the last few years, in our opinion, and we revived it.”

The odd, sure-to-be-jarring, new-look format coming this fall takes what the XFL has used for the past two seasons and tweaks it for the NFL. It reduces the space between the two sides by eliminating the full-field sprint and also incentivizes teams to return kickoffs. By reducing the risk of injury to returners the league hopes some of its most dynamic players will become part of kickoff returns. As one league official said: Imagine the Dolphins having Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill bringing the ball out several times per game?

“Kickoff returner value is going to skyrocket because of the amount of times he’ll have his hands on the ball,” said Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel, another coach who worked closely on the proposal.

The proposal was presented to the owners on Monday but there were not enough votes for it to pass at that time. Competition committee chairman Rich McKay said that was to be expected since it represents such a departure from football norms. “This looks a little strange, it’s not the football we grew up with,” he said. And unlike those who had spent years immersed in studying the matter this was all new for most of the owners. The rule passed on Tuesday by a vote of 29-3; the Raiders, 49ers and Packers voted against it.

Previous rule changes aimed at reducing injuries and concussions in particular had the unintended effect of turning kickoffs into snoozy procedurals. In this past Super Bowl there were 13 touchbacks on 13 kickoffs, 12 of them going completely out of the end zone. Rizzi noted that in 2023 there were 1,970 touchbacks and 92 fair catches on kickoffs. If the new rule can turn just 50% of those into competitive plays, he said, that is 1,000 more opportunities for an exciting result.

McKay said he could not think of a rule that more drastically altered the aesthetics of on-field play in his career. He said the closest change he could recall was the return to replay review in 1998.

“We’re in the business of creating an entertaining product and putting a product on the field that should be competitive in every moment,” McKay said. “This was, in our opinion, our best option. Yes, it’s a big change, but the time has come to make that change.”

The rule will be on the books for the 2024 season and then it can be adjusted.

“I think that we’re still going to have to tinker with it,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday. “I think it’s one of those things, when you get it in play, you look at things and we’ll re-evaluate that as the season’s going on. And if it’s appropriate to make changes in the future, we will.”

McKay said there may be tweaks in the future regarding ball placement on touchbacks — an initial proposal and the XFL rule puts it at the 35 not the 30 as this rule does — and other parts of the play. But the NFL does not expect the basic concept to change.

In fact, it hopes that the new rule trickles down to college, high school and even flag football. Fassel said that is something that would make him and the others who worked on the rule most proud.

“Today I feel like we made football better and we made football safer,” Fassel said. “It’s a great day for special teams, no doubt about it.”


So what will NFL kickoffs look like in 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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