NFL owners approve radical change to kickoffs

ORLANDO, Fla. — NFL owners on Tuesday approved a radical change to kickoffs, taking a page from the XFL’s playbook in a move to curtail injuries during special teams plays.

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The owners approved the measure by a 29-3 vote after three days of talks at the NFL owners’ annual league meeting in Orlando, Florida, ESPN reported.

“We feel this is a great day for the NFL,” New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who worked closely on the proposal, told reporters. “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 format will position most of the kicking and receiving teams downfield to avoid collisions. It will go into effect for one year only, according to ESPN.

For the 2024 season, kickers will continue to kick from the 35-yard line, but his other 10 teammates will line up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line, The Athletic reported. The kickoff return team will place at least nine players in a “setup zone” between their own 35- and 30-yard lines, according to ESPN.

One or two players can line up in a “landing zone” between the receiving team’s goal line and their 20, the cable sports outlet reported.

No one other than the kicker and returner(s) can move until the ball hits the ground or is touched by a player inside the landing zone, ESPN reported. Touchbacks will be marked at the 30-yard line, and no fair catches will be allowed.

The move virtually eliminates a surprise onside kick, according to The Athletic. Teams can still execute an onside kick if they are trailing in the fourth quarter, but must declare their intentions. That would allow the squad to line up in the traditional kickoff alignment.

That also would eliminate what New Orleans achieved in Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida, when the Saints opened the second half with an onside kick and recovered the surprise kick, according to the Miami Herald. New Orleans, trailing 10-6 at the time, went on to defeat the Indianapolis Colts The play was a springboard to the Saints’ 31-17 victory.

Other rules under the new format, according to The Athletic:

• The ball must be returned if it is kicked into the landing zone;

• If the ball is kicked short of the landing zone or out of bounds, it will be placed at the receiving team’s 40-yard line;

• The ball can still be returned if it rolls to the end zone or is kicked to the end zone through the air;

• If the ball is kicked into the landing zone, rolls into the end zone and is downed by the kickoff team, it will placed at the 20-yard line.

• If the ball is kicked through the air to the end zone and is downed, it will be placed at the 30-yard line.

“We’re in the business of creating an entertaining product and putting a product on the field that should be competitive in every moment,” NFL competition chairman Rich McKay said. “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.

“Yes, it’s a big change, but the time has come to make that change.”

According to The Athletic, the XFL rules are slightly different.

For example, the XFL allows only one kickoff returner because the league did not want the second player to become a lead blocker.

XFL rules dictate that if the football lands on the ground in the landing zone, players in the setup zone are prohibited from moving until it is picked up or on the ground for at least three seconds.

• XFL kickoffs were booted from the 30-yard line to make touchbacks more difficult.

More than 90% of kickoffs were returned during the XFL’s two seasons, ESPN reported. NFL special teams coaches who helped design the league’s new rule are hoping for a return rate of at least 80% this season.

“I think it will (be a positive). I say that with a little bit of hesitation. We will still have to tinker with it,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters on Tuesday. “We will reevaluate it as the season goes on. I think it will be a big improvement. I think it will bring it back to a relevant play, an exciting play.”