NFL owners approve radical new kickoff rule for next season

Proposal passed 29-3 that will have 20 of 22 players within 10 yards of each other

ORLANDO – The NFL put the kickoff back in the game, and have come up with some drastic changes in its attempt to do so.

A proposal for a new kickoff rule passed 29-3 -- for next season only -- on Tuesday at the NFL owners’ meeting. The Packers, 49ers and Raiders voted against the new rule.

“It’s a great day for special teams,” Dallas special teams coach John Fassel said.

Fassel and special teams coaches Richard Hightower (Bears) and Darren Rizzi (Saints) helped to design what the NFL is calling the hybrid kickoff return.

Under the new rule, the kicker will line up on the 35-yard line, which is the part of the rule that remains the same. After that, everything changes drastically - very drastically:

-The kicking team will have 10 players lined up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line. Yes, you read it correctly - the kicker will be 25 yards behind his teammates.

-The receiving team must have a minimum of nine players between the 30 and 35-yard line, which would be known as the ‘set-up’ zone.

Still have a problem envisioning the new lineup? Look at it this way - 19 of the 22 players on the kickoff will be lined up within 10 yards of each other - eliminating the possibility of players getting a 40-yard running start which often result in high-speed collisions that led to violent neck and head injuries.

One or two players on the receiving team will be closer to the end zone, while the kicker will be the only person on the opposite side of the field. Talk about drastic changes.

“It has to be safer,” Fassel said “The return rate is going to go way up, but it’s a much safer play. The injuries will go up because there are ton more returns. But the injuries per-live-ball play is going to be lesser than the per-live-ball play now because all of the space is taken away, the speed is taken away.”

The kickoff had turned into a ceremonial play with teams settling for touchbacks and starting drives at the 25-yard line.

“We’re not going to have the head, neck and shoulder injuries,” Fassel said. “We’re going to have some guys get rolled. So, you’re going to have some twisted ankles. But it’s like this, we ran the numbers and the injury rate is going to be equivalent to an offensive or defensive play.”

The league’s kickoff return rate was 22% last season. In Super Bowl 58, there were 13 touchbacks on kickoffs and 12 of them went out of the endzone. Fassel said the Cowboys, who have returner KaVontae Turpin, had a 12% return rate.

The special teams coaches are anticipating a 60 to 70% return rate.

“With more balls in play, the returner becomes more valuable,” Fassel said. “You can have two, but you can also only have one. Depends on what you want to do. In that blocking zone, you can set up a minimum of nine. You can go with 10.

“So, basically you (must) choose. If you go (with) one returner that means I can use that second guy up on the front line and double-team a player. Or, I can bring him back, he can’t be apart of any double teams, but he can be a returner.”

Fassel said a player like Cordarrelle Patterson would be more valuable if the rule passes. He believes it would put the returners back in the game. Patterson has the record for most kickoff returns for a touchdown.

The Falcons have not re-signed Patterson this offseason.

“There’s going to be some strategy involved where the kickers are going to try to kick it away from their primary guy,” Fassel said. “We have a good returner. How can we find a way to make sure that Turpin catches every ball.”

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said they have been preparing for the kickoff rule.

“I do have a lot of confidence in Marquice and our special teams,” Fontenot said. “Avery (Williams) is going to be full tilt after missing last year (with a knee injury). Ray-Ray (McCloud), Rondale (Moore, I like our return game.”

Team may used more linebackers and wide receivers on their game-day rosters.

“We are still going to continue to add,” Fontenot said. “You are always going to put an emphasis on special teams so when you have the right core guys.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin lauded the work of the special teams coaches.

“As a member of the committee for several years, we have talked about the kickoff play and for obvious reasons,” Tomlin said. “It’s central to our efforts to make the game safer. This (was) an unusual discussion in terms of the radical change.”

Falcons chief executive officer Rich McKay, the chair of the competition committee, said they have been working on restoring the kickoff in some form for the past two seasons.

“A lot of the questions that got posed (on Monday) got answered,” McKay said. “This kickoff looks new to us. It looks totally different to us. We’re used to a line of scrimmage and now we’ve moved that.”

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