Latest NFL rule change a reminder that kickoffs are in danger: ‘To do nothing was unacceptable’

EAGAN, Minn. — NFL special teams guidelines continue to shift.

Tuesday, NFL team owners approved a proposal that will allow teams that fair-catch kickoffs and safety kicks behind the 25-yard line to spot the ball at the 25-yard line.

The rule will go into effect for one season on a trial basis.

League officials said kickoff plays generate the highest rate of concussions every single year. Kicks hung inside the 5-yard line generated particular concern in their film study of injury incidences.

“We can’t stand by and do nothing,” said Jeff Miller, NFL executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy. “Sitting still and continuing to do nothing was unacceptable. And I think that’s where the membership came down on this.”

Miller and NFL competition committee chair Rich McKay declined to provide exact data on concussion incidences in recent years, only noting that concussions on kickoffs charted much higher than other plays in their reports.

Nineteen players suffered concussions in 2022, up from 14 in 2021 and 10 in 2020, according to data obtained and reported by Sports Illustrated. Those 19 concussions occurred across approximately 2,700 kickoffs – meaning 99.3% of kickoff plays were concussion-free.

Special teams coaches across the league presented that data as they strongly opposed and mobilized against the rule. Some felt the resulting confusion from the rule change posed a bigger health risk than the one currently impacting 0.7% of plays.

The NFL approved a rule change for the next year that will allow teams to fair catch kickoffs anywhere inside their own 25-yard line and have the ball automatically spotted at the 25. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
The NFL approved a rule change for the next year that will allow teams to fair catch kickoffs anywhere inside their own 25-yard line and have the ball automatically spotted at the 25. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images) (Rey Del Rio via Getty Images)

Procedural questions and challenges remain, one special teams coordinator told Yahoo Sports.

“What if the ball is kicked off from the 50 after a penalty … does a fair catch still put the ball at 25?” the coach wondered in a text message. “Or if the ball is kicked off from the 20 after a penalty or safety? What if the ball is muffed (rare but will happen)? Little things but definitely some things we need to address to clean it up!”

Team owners passed the ruling even so, voting during their privileged session. Dispute is to be expected, McKay said.

“We tend to get ourselves to the right place,” he said of safety-related rule changes, “but it’s never that comfortable.”

How likely is it that kickoff rule becomes permanent?

NFL team owners did not approve this rule indefinitely.

In a year, they will reassess whether to continue implementing this 25-yard line spot. The decision will factor in health and safety considerations, as well as the quality of competition.

Do injuries on kickoffs decrease? How often does this rule prompt teams to return kicks inside the 25 compared to the frequency of return last year?

League modeling projects a reduction from returns on 38% of kickoffs to 31%. Concussion rates on kickoffs, they predict, will drop by 15%.

Modifying kickoff formats to reduce the space between teams, and thus likely the speed of the defending team’s pursuit, remains a possibility in the near future. McKay and the competition committee wonder: If kickoffs are only returned 38% of the time right now, is there an alternate format that would invite returns on more like 60% of kicks? If so, would that excite fans even more?

“If we can make it a more competitive play on a play that’s becoming more ceremonial, we should always do that,” McKay said.

Added Miller: “You want to make sure that play is still exciting and relevant.”

Eliminating kickoffs altogether is not the committee’s current preference, but neither has it been ruled out.

“We want to keep it in the game,” McKay said. “I don’t know that we know we can keep it in the game. But we want to keep it in the game.”

Special teams coaches will keep their eyes peeled for their notice.

“Gotta adapt fast,” the coordinator said, “and change with the times.”