Andrew Beck’s first touchdown in four years started with a near disaster.
The Houston Texans fullback mishandled a kickoff at his own 9-yard line last Sunday when he backpedaled to position himself to catch the ball and collided with his team’s return specialist.
When Beck secured the bouncing football, the 6-foot-3, 255-pounder dodged the first onrushing would-be tackler like he was Devin Hester in his prime. Then he nimbly eluded two more. Soon, he was rumbling down the sideline for an 86-yard touchdown return that left the Texans bench jumping up and down in disbelief and veteran play-by-play announcer Chris Myers gasping on the Fox broadcast, “Did we just see what we just saw?”
Beck’s improbable touchdown was one of the most exhilarating moments of the NFL weekend, yet it’s also exactly the type of play that safety-conscious league executives are determined to eliminate. The NFL has repeatedly altered its rules to disincentivize kickoff returns since a disproportionate percentage of concussions and other serious injuries occur as a result of high-speed collisions during those plays.
The latest rule change is the NFL’s most drastic attempt yet to de-emphasize the kickoff return without doing away with it altogether. Last May, NFL owners approved an experimental one-year rule that places the ball on the receiving team’s 25-yard line if a kickoff returner calls for a fair catch anywhere behind that point on the field. A returner previously could only receive a touchback if the kickoff reached the end zone.
The NFL has gotten the results it wanted so far this season because the rule change has hastened the kickoff return’s league-wide disappearance. Through three weeks, 80.9% of kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, the highest rate in at least three decades and very likely a league record. Last season, the touchback rate on kickoffs was just under 60%. As recently as 20 years ago, it was less than 10%.
One of the most thrilling plays in football going the way of leather helmets would be “a positive change,” insists Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO Chris Nowinski, one of the nation's leading voices on sports-related brain trauma. Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive tackle, argues that de-emphasizing or ditching the kickoff is the best way to make football safer without sacrificing the sport’s essence.
“Kickoffs, by far, are the most dangerous play for the brain,” Nowinski told Yahoo Sports. “You have players making 30- or 40-yard sprints and colliding at full speed. The players are moving faster than your standard play and the hits can come from more directions.”
And yet there’s concern in some circles that the NFL is damaging the game and devaluing special teams by continually whittling away at the relevance of one of football’s most exhilarating plays.
Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid condemned the new rule the day after it was enacted, saying that the NFL could become “flag football” if too much physicality is removed. Travis Kelce sided with his coach two days later, predicting on his podcast that the “absolutely stupid” new rule would make the game “more boring.”
One of the league’s most outspoken critics is a special teams player who the fair catch rule is supposed to protect. Matthew Slater, the NFL’s all-time record holder for the most special teams Pro Bowl selections, told reporters in May that the new rule is more about the NFL giving the appearance that it cares about player health and safety than anything else. If NFL owners were actually serious, Slater said, then they should examine the dangers of artificial turf fields, Thursday night games and insufficient insurance for retired players.
“If we’re really concerned with player safety and health, let’s talk about some of the real issues,” Slater said.
The turning point
Before the NFL began paying more than lip service to the need to prevent concussions, its stance toward the kickoff return was once very different.
In 1994, the league lowered the kickoff tee to 1 inch and moved the spot of kickoffs back five yards to the 30-yard line in an effort to handicap strong-legged kickers and ensure fewer touchbacks. The NFL then lauded how the rule changes “boosted the return rate to 88 percent in the 1994 season from 68 percent the previous year.”
The turning point came more than a decade later when new research and increasing public pressure forced the NFL to finally confront the link between football concussions and long-term brain damage. The league began exploring ways to keep one of the most electric plays in the game yet limit the number of high-speed collisions that kickoff returns produced.
In 2009, NFL owners voted to ban three-, four- and five-man wedges, the human plow that would line up in front of kick returners and clear a path through the first wave of onrushing tacklers. In 2011, the league moved the kicking line back to the 35-yard line and limited running starts that the kicking team could take, slashing the return rate and the number of concussions on kickoffs (40 percent, per the NFL) yet drawing outcry from many of its top returners.
"They might as well put up the arena nets, man, because there's going to be a lot of balls going in the end zone,” Devin Hester complained to Chicago sports radio duo Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman.
Josh Cribbs made a similar argument, telling NFL.com “It's things like the kickoff return that makes this sport exciting, and now you're going to change the sport to nothing but touchbacks."
The changes, of course, didn’t stop there. The NFL attempted to further disincentivize kickoff returns only five years later by moving the placement of the football on touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25.
What happened next is a reminder that rule changes can produce unintended consequences. At a time when kicker legs were only getting stronger, the touchback rate started to plateau. Then it actually slightly declined.
Searching for a long-term fix
Why did the NFL touchback rate go from 61% in 2019 and 2020 to 57.5% in 2021? And then not bounce back all that much in 2022? NFL executives have theorized that some teams asked their kickers not to boom every kickoff through the back of the end zone. Those teams preferred higher, shorter kickoffs that forced a return and gave their coverage units a chance to pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory.
With the concussion rate on kickoffs once again rising and the recent increase in pop-up kicks raising new concerns, the NFL decided to act. On May 23, despite considerable pushback from players and coaches around the league, the NFL announced its fair-catch rule as a one-year patch while it explored other options.
“The data is very clear about the higher rate of injury on that play,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the NFL’s spring meeting last May. “We’ve been talking about it for several years. We have not made a lot of progress on this play. This is a step that we think was appropriate to address that.”
The impact of the new rule was apparent across the NFL this past weekend. Five different return specialists signaled for fair catches on kickoffs that didn’t reach the goal line rather than risking trying to return the ball past the 25-yard line.
Kickers also no longer have incentive to try the high, short kickoffs that some teams had favored in recent years. They showed off their leg strength in Week 3 as almost 87% of kickoffs reached the end zone.
While rule changes de-emphasizing the kickoff are having their desired effect, the NFL has framed them as a quick fix rather than a long-term solution. The goal, Goodell has said, is to find a way to preserve kickoff returns “in an exciting way but more importantly a safe way.”
One option that the NFL has undoubtedly studied is the XFL’s unorthodox approach to kickoffs. In the XFL, only the kicker and one returner can move before the ball is fielded. The remaining players line up five yards apart, with the kicking team at the opponent’s 35 and the receiving team at its own 30. Touchbacks are spotted at the 35.
The goal is to incentivize returns and disincentivize touchbacks while eliminating the high-speed collisions that have led to injuries. The sight of 20 players standing around while the ball is in the air is jarring for newcomers, but the XFL has had a 90-plus% kickoff return rate and even some occasional highlights.
Anything that would restore the kickoff return’s relevance would be a welcome change for a lot of special teams standouts. They fear their roles could evaporate if the kickoff return continues to trend toward extinction and the NFL takes aim at the punt return next.
Jaylin Lucas, a speedy 5-foot-9 Indiana sophomore running back, is one of college football’s most explosive kick returners. The preseason All-American returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a true freshman, a 92-yarder against Rutgers and an 88-yarder against Michigan State.
In another era, Lucas’ return skills could be a potential ticket to the NFL in a few years. The way the pro game is changing, he realizes that the return game isn’t as important to teams and that opportunities will be even tougher to earn.
“Kickoff returns are probably the most exciting plays in the sport,” Lucas told Yahoo Sports. “I know I can contribute on the offensive side of the ball, but just being one of the smaller guys, I hope kickoff returns stay in the game. That’s an opportunity for me to get on the field and showcase my talent.”