NFL owners approve massive revamp to kickoff

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ORLANDO, Fla. — NFL owners approved a massive revamp of the kickoff play Tuesday, opting, after three days of discussions at the league’s annual meeting, for a format that originated in the XFL.

The proposal passed by a vote of 29-3, NFL competition chairman Rich McKay said Tuesday. A proposal needs approval by 24 of the 32 owners to pass.

“We feel this is a great day for the NFL,” New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who worked closely on the proposal, said Tuesday. “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 new alignment rules represent the most significant on-field rule change for the NFL in years and are designed to reverse more than a decade of declining return rates while also lowering concussion rates. In essence, the format will move the majority of the kicking and return teams downfield to minimize high-speed collisions. It will go into effect for one year only in anticipation of possible tweaks over time.

During the 2024 season, kickers will continue to kick from the 35-yard line, but the other 10 players on the kickoff team will line up at the receiving team’s 40-yard line. At least nine members of the return team will line up in a “setup zone” 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.

No one other than the kicker and returner(s) can move until the ball hits the ground or hits a player inside the landing zone. Touchbacks will be marked at the 30-yard line, and no fair catches will be allowed. In the event a team wants to attempt an onside kick, it will have to inform officials of its intent and would then be allowed to use the NFL’s traditional formation. No surprise onside kicks will be allowed.

We’re in the business of creating an entertaining product and putting a product on the field that should be competitive in every moment. And we had created a play that was no longer competitive, and our [goal was] to try to find a way to make that play competitive. And this was, in our opinion, our best option,” McKay said. “Yes, it’s a big change, but the time has come to make that change.”

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. NFL special teams coaches who participated in designing the NFL version of this format are hoping for a return rate of at least 80% in 2024.

The reason for the change 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.

Speaking before the vote, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell said he was in favor.

“You felt like that took a significant amount of plays out of the game, and those were from special teams. And you don’t make it up really anywhere else. And so, we put an emphasis on it. So, I believe in it.”

On Monday, owners approved three other rule changes:

  • A prohibition of the swivel hip-drop tackle technique.

  • Allowing teams to receive a third challenge after one successful challenge. Previously, teams had to be successful on two challenges to receive a third. This proposal was submitted by the Lions.

  • If there is a double foul during a down in which there is a change or changes of possession, including if one of the fouls is a post-possession foul by a team during a scrimmage kick, the team last gaining possession will keep the ball after enforcement for its foul, provided it did not foul before last gaining possession.

ESPN’s Stephen Holder contributed to this story.

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