NFL owners approve major changes to kickoff rules, move trade deadline to Week 9
NFL owners approve major changes to kickoff rules, move trade deadline to Week 9

ORLANDO, Fla. – After getting a night’s sleep over discussions held Monday over a proposed modified kickoff, NFL owners on Tuesday voted to approve a change that league officials and coaches believe will return the game to relevance.

Twenty-nine of the 32 owners voted in favor of the change, and it goes into effect this coming season — a year after only 22 percent of kickoffs in the 2023 season were returned.

The modification calls for all players on the kicking team to line up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line, while the receiving team lines up nine players on its 35. Two men will line up down the field as punt returners. The kicker will still start from his own 35. The kicking team’s defenders will not be allowed to move until the ball is on the ground in the “touchdown zone” — inside the receiving team’s 20-yard line. If the ball lands short of the touchdown zone, the ball will be moved to the receiving team’s 40-yard line, just as if a kickoff goes out of bounds. Touchbacks require the ball to be moved to the receiving team’s 30.

The only downside to the new format is that it eliminates the element of the surprise side kick. Now, if a team wishes to attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter, they will declare such intent and the teams will line up in the old formation and begin.

“I think it’s interesting. … When you put guys in different spots that they haven’t been in before, there’s just a different time (to look at) and how it’s going to play out,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.

“I think it’s going to be a fun thing in the league. I think it will be a different thing every week.”

Members of the NFL’s competition committee have spent the past two years studying the format used by the XFL. The NFL’s new alignment is a hybrid of this format. Special teams coordinators John Fassel (Dallas), Richard Hightower (Chicago) and Darren Rizzi (New Orleans) worked intensively to add changes to this format that would best fit the NFL, and then all 32 special teams coordinators teams met during the week of the combine to further refine the proposal presented to the competition committee and then to NFL owners and coaches this week in Orlando.

“I think it’s important for us to find ways to get the excitement back for our fans and us,” Falcons coach Raheem Morris said. “And also make the special teams coaches more relevant, right? We don’t want to lose the relevance of any position of what we do. So I have to give these guys credit for coming up with the idea. We will fight the battles of the unknown. No doubt we haven’t seen the play. (We’ve seen) a form of play in a different league.”

The change could affect the makeup of the roster, coaches and team officials acknowledge. The new alignment could cause teams to place more importance on players at certain positions due to the need for flexibility on special teams. But it’s a change teams welcome.

“I think there’s going to be some experimentation and we’ll just see what you need, but the special teams coaches will take care of that with guys on the staff and figure that out,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “But I think it adds a bit of excitement and novelty.”

Fassel predicted the change will cause teams to place more emphasis on acquiring quality return men, and that need could affect some decisions in next month’s draft. Rizzi added that it’s possible teams will start carrying multiple linebackers as opposed to bigger defensive units because of the need for faster, more athletic coverage men.

Both Fassel, Rizzi and NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay called Tuesday a “great day” for football and special teams. Fassel, who said he spent two days experimenting with the new formation during Dallas’ offseason practices, revealed he has received overwhelming support from his players and the NFL Players Association as the modification becomes more of a around 2000 extra games per season which means more opportunities for younger/reserve players to make an impact on the game.

“We’ve been in constant communication with the NFLPA,” Rizzi said. “The new president, Jaylen Reaves-Maybin (of the Lions), is obviously a major special teams player and guys like Mike Thomas, who’s on the executive committee, a guy I coached with the Dolphins a while back; we talked to a lot of these guys during this process. The NFLPA is on board, and I don’t want to speak for them, but I know from our conversations with them that they were very supportive of this rule because it increases the value of the returner, increases the value of core players.”

Hightower described the players’ reaction as “pure excitement.”

“They can’t wait to get those plays moved back into the game,” he said. “They knew something had to be done. We all did it and we all worked hard — all 32 special teams coordinators working together — and we think it’s going to provide excitement and opportunities that the game has been missing.”

All three coordinators believe the impact of the change will extend far beyond the NFL. They envision a trickle-down effect that could eventually see college, high school and youth games implement similar changes 1) because of the game’s renewed importance and 2) because of how the change will make football safer, which preserves the longevity of the game .

“The biggest takeaway from this — because it’s not just the NFL, this hopefully goes on for a long time — is that college can adopt this, high school can adopt it and (youth) football can adopt this,” Fassel said. “I think that’s what we’re going to be most proud of: seeing that spread to the other parts of football, where today I feel like we’ve made football better and made football safer, and that’s going to spread to other levels.”

NFL owners also voted to move the NFL trade deadline to the Tuesday after the Week 9 games from the previous deadline to after Week 8. Six teams submitted a proposal for Week 10, but Browns general manager Andrew Berry – who became the unofficial face of the rule change – said, “if it moves at all, I’ll be very happy.”

“As a league, it makes sense to give teams the most flexibility,” Berry said. “Moving it back (two weeks), we felt that was the sweet spot.”

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Berry, citing research, said MLB and the NBA set their annual trade deadlines after about 65 percent of the regular season is complete, and the NHL’s trade deadline comes after 78 percent of the season is complete. He said the NFL’s old post-Week 8 deadline came after 48 percent of games were completed, when some NFL teams played eight of their 17 games (some played nine).

“(The post-Week 9 deadline) helps maintain the competitive integrity of the season so you don’t have a player who gets thrown out at the end of the year,” Berry said.

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(Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

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