NFL owners approve massive overhaul of kickoff
NFL owners approve massive overhaul of kickoff

ORLANDO, Fla. — NFL owners approved a major overhaul of the kickoff game Tuesday, choosing a format that originated in the XFL after three days of discussions at the league’s annual meeting.

The new alignment rules represent the NFL’s most significant on-field rule change in years and are designed to reverse more than a decade of declining return rates while reducing concussion rates. Essentially, the format will move most of the kicking and return teams downfield to minimize high-speed collisions. It will only be in effect for one year pending possible changes over time.

In the 2024 season, kickers will continue to kick from the 35-yard line, but the remaining 10 players from the starting 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 may line up in the “touchdown zone” between the goal line and the 20-yard line.

No one other than the kicker and returner(s) may move until the ball hits the ground or a player in the touchdown zone. Touchbacks will be scored at the 30 yard line and no fair catches will be allowed. In the event a team wishes to attempt an onside kick, it will be required to inform officials of its intent and will then be allowed to use the NFL’s traditional formation. Surprise onside kicks will not be allowed.

The proposal follows the structure and philosophy of the XFL version with a slight change in player alignment. In the XFL, they lined up further down, between the return team’s 30- and 35-yard lines. More than 90% of kickoffs were returned in both XFL seasons. NFL special teams coaches who were involved in designing the NFL version of this format are hoping for a return of at least 80% in 2024.

The reason for the change is clear. In an effort to reduce kickoff concussions, the NFL over the past 15 seasons has instituted rule changes designed to reduce returns. He moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, banned wedge blocks and double teams, and in 2023 created a rule that allowed a fair catch to be spotted at the 25-yard line.

Touchback percentages increased dramatically during that span, and punt return percentage dropped to a league-high 21.7% in 2023. Concussions also decreased, but only in tandem with the drop in punt returns. The percentage 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 it took a significant amount of plays out of the game, and they were on special teams. And you don’t come up with it anywhere else. So we emphasize that. So, I believe in it.”

On Monday, the owners approved three other rule changes:

  • Prohibition of the hip rotation technique.

  • Allows teams to get a third challenge after a successful challenge. Previously, teams had to succeed in two challenges to get a third. The offer is to the Lions.

  • If there is a double foul during a down where there is a change or changes of possession, including if one of the fouls is a post-possession foul by a team during a punt battle, the team that last gained possession shall retain the ball after that play for his foul, provided he did not foul before the last possession of the ball.

ESPN’s Stephen Holder contributed to this story.

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