Everything you need to know about the NFL's new hybrid kickoff rule change


ORLANDO, Fla. — Rich McKay joined the NFL’s competition committee 29 years ago and is the longest-tenured member in its history. As he took a moment to reflect Tuesday, he could think of only one other rule change that matched the significance of the kickoff overhaul that owners passed that morning by a vote of 29-3.

And that was replay,” McKay said of the decision to bring back replay review in 1998, marking the permanent infusion of technology into determining the outcome of games. Otherwise, the changes to the kickoff — a fundamental and aesthetic redesign that the NFL hopes will more than double the return rate while dropping the injury rate — is as big as it gets.

“This is going to be brand new to everybody,” said New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who worked closely with the committee on the redesign. “But the big thing is we feel we’ve made this play extremely relevant and, more importantly, a lot safer.”

ESPN has been chronicling this kickoff approach since the XFL developed it in 2020 and noted the NFL’s growing interest last summer. Here’s what you need to know about the version the NFL adopted Tuesday for a one-year experiment, based on three days of reporting at the annual league meeting.

What’s different about this kickoff structure?

The building block of this approach is to line up the majority of players downfield before the kick rather than have them run there while the ball is in the air. That shift should reduce the number of high-speed collisions that cause injuries. The kicker will continue to kick off from his 35-yard line, but the remaining 10 members of the kicking team will line up at the receiving team’s 40-yard line. At least nine members of the return team will be between their 35- and 30-yard lines in what’s called the “setup zone.”

And then what?

The ball ideally will drop between the 20-yard line and the goal line, called the “landing zone,” where the receiving team will have one or (more likely) two returners. If the ball lands in the end zone or goes out of the end zone, the resulting touchback will be spotted at the 30-yard line. If it’s kicked out of bounds, the ball will be placed at the 40.

What about coverage?

No one but the kicker and returner(s) can move until the ball is caught or hits the ground. That will create an admittedly awkward few seconds when 19 or 20 players are standing still while the ball is in the air.

“It looks a little bit strange,” Rizzi said. “It’s not the football that we all grew up watching.”

How will those players know when to move?

The kicking team will be able to see the ball touch the ground or the returner and likely have a bit of an advantage, Rizzi acknowledged. The question was one of many that nearly 60 special teams coaches discussed in February at the NFL combine.

“I think some coaches will teach their return unit in the setup zone to go and work off of the kickoff team and kind of react,” Rizzi said. “And I think some guys maybe have the vision in the back and their eyes back to the returner, and they’ll go on the touch. So again, in talking with all the coaches, I think it’s going to be one of those things that they work maybe a couple different ways in camp and kind of see what the best is. It’s going to be a work in progress.”

How is this going to help resurrect the kickoff?

The NFL spent more than a decade trying to address the high injury rates on kickoffs by adopting rules that were designed to reduce returns via touchbacks and fair catches. By 2023, only 21% of kickoffs were returned.

McKay projected that between 50% and 60% of kickoffs will be returned in 2024. That would add roughly 1,000 plays to the NFL’s season.

Wasn’t the original projection between 80% and 90%?

Yes, but the committee made one tweak this week to the original proposal, moving the touchback spot from the 35- to the 30-yard line, a compromise that helped the proposal get enough support to pass. It will reduce the incentive to avoid a touchback but would still represent a big jump in the return rate.

“That’s OK with us to start this rule,” McKay said. “If it works the way we think it will, it’ll still be successful in many ways.”

Does 5 yards really make that big of a difference?

Yes. Some coaches want to avoid returns without a resulting spot as severe as the 35-yard line.

“A team might not feel good about their ability to cover kicks that week,” said Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel, “or the team feels like they’re kicking to a great returner or a kick return team that has an incredible drive start, it might just want to have a touchback.”

What happens with onside kicks?

Teams have to declare their intent to use an onside formation, which will look like the traditional formation used up until this season. That rules out the possibility of a surprise onside kick, a big allure that doesn’t get used nearly as often as it might seem. In 2023, for example, there were two in 272 regular-season games.

What about squib kicks?

Under the new rule, any kick that lands short of the 20-yard line will be ruled down immediately and marked at the 40-yard line. That would eliminate the squib from use in most situations.

“Those strategical parts of the [old] kickoff at the half and at the end of the game, where you can maybe eliminate some time off the clock with a squib kick and things like that, that element is going to be gone as well,” Rizzi said.

What are the personnel implications here?

The educated guess among coaches this week is that most teams will use two returners, because there are field position ramifications if a ball touches the ground in the landing zone. A member of the kicking team could beat a single returner to it and, because it’s a live ball, recover it for a change of possession. If the ball lands in the field of play, then rolls into the end zone and there is a touchback, it will be marked at the 20-yard line rather than the 30.

For that reason, and because of the expected rise in returns, the value of kickoff returners is going to “skyrocket,” Fassel said.

Teams might also recalibrate the makeup of their depth to account for the fact there will be more in-line blocking, and less running, on kickoffs. One coach suggested that offensive and defensive linemen could have more frequent use in those situations.

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell said he and special teams coordinator Dave Fipp are excited about the possibility of strategic innovation.

“You want to feel like you’re going to do something that is a little unique or something they’re not prepared for,” Campbell said. “And really that’s what it is, right? You’re wanting to try to find something they’re not ready for, not prepared for, whatever that is. Maybe it’s been done, maybe it hasn’t.”

Is every team behind this?

Not entirely.

San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York was one of three owners to vote against the proposal. He said Tuesday that he is fully in favor of shifting it to “more of a real play as opposed to a ceremonial play.” But considering what he called a “drastic change,” York hoped there would be a way to tweak the rule during the season if immediate unintended consequences arise.

“I’m a hundred percent for trying to make that play active in our game again,” York said. “And I think they put in a ton of time, a ton of effort to try to make something work. I’m just sure that there’s going to be tweaks to it, and I’d rather tweak it if we have to in the middle of the season as opposed to, ‘Here’s the asterisk season, and then we’re going to tweak it at the end of the year.'”

Would field position be one of those potential consequences?

Yes.

According to Fassel, the average starting position of drives will be much more unpredictable given the potential variance of return strategy. Based on numbers he provided Tuesday, 80% of drives last season started around the 25-yard line. The projections for the new rule indicate that 40% of drives will start at the 30-yard line or higher. Another 30% will start inside the 20-yard line. And the remaining 30% would start between the 20- and 30-yard line.

“I think there was a little bit of a scare factor for some teams where, ‘I don’t know if the ball starts at the 12 to 25 or the 39,” he said. “But the unpredictability of it, I think, is also exciting. So you’re going to get a lot more variance and drive starts using this model than the previous one, which I think is good.”

How much will injuries be reduced?

The key metric the NFL has been following is the concussion rate, which for kickoffs has been anywhere from three to five times that of typical offensive plays over the past decade because of the nature of the collisions.

“The goal,” said NFL executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy Jeff Miller, “is to get the injury rate and concussion rate to be very similar to a run or pass play from scrimmage. Will it be a little bit higher? Will it be the same? Will be a little bit lower?

“We’re going to have to see how the teams strategize, but we’ve created the mechanisms by bringing the players closer and minimizing the space that we think it should be in that zone. Then if we need to tinker with and tailor that after we get some data after the year, then we’ll be OK. Does it it help? For sure.”

ESPN’s Stephen Holder and Nick Wagoner contributed to this story.





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