NFL expects fewer kickoff returns with new inside-25 fair catch rule

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The NFL has pushed the kickoff return further toward irrelevance with a priority on player safety.

The existence of the kickoff itself is under scrutiny.

League owners voted on Tuesday for a one-year trial of an improved touchback rule that will give the team receiving the ball to their own 25 with a good grip from a kickoff no matter where behind this yard line.

“There will still be a lot of work to do on how we can continue to evolve in the future,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Can we continue to keep this game exciting, but more importantly safe? There is a lot of work to do. »

The proposal passed despite strong pushback from coaches and players across the league who argued the rule change would create uglier plays with squibs and corner kicks that would make fair holds impossible.

“I’ve been in this for a long time. I’ve seen these kinds of health and safety discussions,” said Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, who is chairman of the competition committee. “We tend to put ourselves in the right place, but it’s never that comfortable.”

The NFL said its statistical models predict the return rate from kickoffs in 2023 under the new rule will drop from 38% to 31% and the rate of concussions on the sport’s most dangerous play will be reduced by 15%. Concussions on kickoffs occur more than twice as often as on scrimmage plays, and that rate has increased dramatically over the past two years, McKay said.

One of the reasons for the recent increase in head injuries? Improved kicker skills to be able to strategically hang the ball longer and higher in front of the goal line, allowing more time for coverage to make a tackle and keeping the opponent’s drive deeper than the 25 for an endcourt touchback.

“We understand that there are going to be injuries involved in professional football and football at all levels. We’re just trying to mitigate those risks,” said Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, who serves on the committee. competition which recommended the approval of the rule.

The NFL essentially copied a rule recently installed in college football.

“That’s not to say there won’t be unintended consequences, but standing still and continuing to do nothing was unacceptable,” said Jeff Miller, executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy at the NFL. “There may be more to come, as kickoff and punting continue to have higher injury rates than running or passing plays – and sometimes by a substantial margin. We have to keep watching these games.

McKay acknowledged that there is no guarantee kickoff will always be a part of the sport. The NFL will continue to look at alternatives, including what’s used in the spring leagues. The XFL has only 5 yards between kick and return teams, mostly down with no movement until the returner has fielded the ball.

“You don’t want this game to be offside because special teams has been a really big part of our game and it’s been a really big part of a lot of players’ and coaches’ careers,” McKay said. “People like it. We just need to find ways to make games safer.

The league moved touchdowns from the 20-yard line to 25 in 2016. In the past 12 seasons since kickoff tees were moved to the 35-yard line from 30, only 53 returns resulted in touchdowns. There were 20 kick-off return scores in 2010 before the change.

“I’m sure that’s like a good rule for the NFL. They always have their reasons why they put stuff in,” said Keisean Nixon of Green Bay, who had one of four returning TDs as the 2022 season kicked off. caught, so I don’t know.”

Chicago coach Matt Eberflus predicted a tactical shift to squibs, drops and drive kicks.

“I suspect you’ll see more returns than less,” Eberflus said. “That’s exactly what I’m thinking right now, but we’ll see what happens.”


Goodell expressed an openness to teams spending more time overseas, with the Jacksonville Jaguars scheduled for back-to-back games in London this year.

“We’ll see what the impact is on the Jaguars,” Goodell said. “At some point, could we try three? Maybe.”

The NFL expanded its global marketing program to include two additional teams and four additional countries, bringing the totals to 21 and 14. The rights for France were awarded to the New Orleans Saints. Ireland and Northern Ireland went to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who got Mexico last year. Ireland also went to the Jaguars. The Atlanta Falcons have become the fifth club to obtain Germany. The Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have secured rights to Austria and Switzerland.

The program was designed to help individual teams grow their brands overseas through commercial activities and fan engagement similar to what they do in their home markets. The rights are granted by the league for at least five years.


AP Pro Football writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and AP sportswriters Steve Megargee in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Andrew Seligman in Lake Forest, Illinois, contributed to this report.


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