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

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

The league announced the change on 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 would 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 would have at least nine blockers lined up in the “set up zone” between the 30- and 35-yard line with at least seven of those players touching the 35. There would be up two returners allowed inside the 20.

Only the kicker and two returners would be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or was 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 injury when they collide with their opponents.

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

As scrutiny around player safety and concussions has increased in recent years, the NFL has made numerous changes to try and reduce injuries on the field. The league’s operations said in February that concussions sustained on kickoffs dropped, but the 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 do not 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 preserve 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 because kickoffs can be, 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 a fine while their teams are hit with a 15-yard penalty.



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