NFL radically revamps kickoff rules to improve safety, but also increase ‘exciting, fun play’

NFL owners voted to approve changes to the league’s kickoff structure for the 2024 season at their annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, introducing a system that they hope will produce more returns.

The league announced the change Tuesday, saying the new structure would resemble a scrimmage-style kickoff “by aligning players on both teams closer together and restricting movement to reduce space and speed.”

For a standard kickoff, the ball will be kicked from the 35-yard line with the 10 kick coverage players lined up at the opposing 40, with five on each side of the field.

The return team will have at least nine blockers lined up in the “set up zone” between the 30- and 35-yard lines, with at least seven of those players touching the 35. Up to two returners will be allowed inside the 20.

Only the kicker and two returners will be allowed to move until the balls hit the ground or is touched by a returner inside the 20.

Because of the reduced space and time, players won’t be going at full running speed and are less likely to incur serious injuries when they collide with their opponents.

It’s a one-year rule change, and it can be changed, kept or discarded by the start of the 2025 season. The style originated in the XFL, a competing professional football league, and it has resulted in more returns.

As scrutiny around player safety and concussions has increased in recent years, the NFL has made numerous changes to try to reduce injuries on the field. The league said in February that concussions sustained during kickoffs dropped but that the number of returns had also decreased.

According to ESPN, more than 90% of kicks were returned during two seasons of the XFL following the new style’s adoption.

League officials said they don’t want to eliminate kickoff returns, which are an exciting element of the game. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president overseeing health and safety, said in February it was important to design a style of play that preserves the return rate without compromising on player safety.

“I think we share the same perspective as the committee, which is to say that’s the goal,” Miller said. “And we want to make that an exciting, fun play … and yet extract the pieces of that play that provide the most risk.”

The kickoff change was adopted among other rules, including a ban on hip-drop tackles. Players who use the swivel technique will risk incurring fines while their teams are hit with 15-yard penalties.

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