NFL to mull kickoff change, hip-drop tackle ban

The NFL’s competition committee proposed a revamped kickoff Wednesday that resembles the alignment used in the XFL during its 2020 and 2023 seasons, one of a series of high-profile changes owners will consider next week at their annual league meeting.

The committee also offered a rule that would prohibit the hip-drop tackling technique. The NFLPA issued a statement Wednesday opposing that proposal.

“The players oppose any attempt by the NFL to implement a rule prohibiting a ‘swivel hip-drop’ tackle,” the players’ union said. While the NFLPA remains committed to improvements to our game with health and safety in mind, we cannot support a rule change that causes confusion for us as players, for coaches, for officials and especially, for fans. We call on the NFL, again, to reconsider implementing this rule.”

The kickoff proposal would be the most significant on-field rule change for the NFL in years and is designed to reverse more than a decade of declining return rates while also lowering concussion rates. In essence, the committee’s proposal would move the majority of the kicking and return teams downfield to minimize high-speed collisions. If approved by at least 24 of 32 owners, the rule would go into effect for one year only.

The kicker would continue to kick from the 35-yard line, but the other 10 players would line up at the receiving team’s 40-yard line. At least nine members of the return team would line up in a “setup zone” between the 35- and 30-yard line. Up to two returners can line up in a “landing zone” between the goal line and the 20-yard line. No one other than the kicker and returner(s) can move until the ball hits the ground or a player inside the landing zone. Touchbacks would be marked at the 35-yard line, and no fair catches would be allowed.

In the event a team wants to attempt an onside kick, it would have to inform officials of its intent and would then be allowed to use the NFL’s traditional formation. No surprise onside kicks would be allowed.

The proposal follows the structure and philosophy of the XFL version with a slight shift in where the players are aligned. In the XFL, they lined up farther downfield, between the returning team’s 30- and 35-yard lines. More than 90% of kickoffs were returned during the XFL’s two seasons.

The reason for the proposed changes is clear. In its efforts to reduce concussions on kickoffs, the NFL over the past 15 seasons has implemented rule changes designed to reduce returns. It moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, outlawed wedge and double-team blocks and in 2023 created a rule that allowed a fair catch to be spotted at the 25-yard line.

Touchback rates dramatically increased over that period and the return rate fell to a league-record 21.7% in 2023. The number of concussions dropped as well, but only in parallel with the decrease in returns. The rate of concussions per kickoff, according to league officials, has remained relatively constant.

It is unclear how owners will react to the changes. When the XFL and USFL merged this season, the resulting UFL discarded the XFL version and opted to use the traditional NFL kickoff alignment.

Meanwhile, the committee’s attempt to eliminate the hip-drop tackles — a dangerous technique that often results in lower body injuries — requires officials to note two actions: If a defender “grabs the runner with both hands or wraps the runner with both arms,” according to the wording of the proposal and also “unweights himself by swiveling and dropping his hips and/or lower body, landing on and trapping the runner’s leg(s) at or below the knee.”

The committee’s proposals came one week after teams made a series of their own rule change requests.

Other committee proposals included:

  • To add two instances to the list of reviewable plays: whether a passer is out of bounds or down by contact before throwing, and whether the game clock has expired before a snap.

  • To expand the rule against crackback blocks to players “who go in motion and move beyond the center to block a defender at or below the knee,” according to the proposal.

  • To allow teams to use a practice squad quarterback as its emergency No. 3 quarterback. Currently that quarterback must have previously been part of the 53-man roster.

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