Analysis | This proposal could be a cure for the NFL’s kickoff woes

Analysis | This proposal could be a cure for the NFL’s kickoff woes

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

The NFL wanted to reimagine the kickoff this offseason in perhaps its last, best attempt to keep the play in the game. The league’s rulemakers are trying to make the kickoff both safer and relevant, a balance they have been unable to strike in previous efforts.

That part of the process is just about done. League representatives, members of the NFL competition committee and special teams coaches from several teams are applying the finishing touches to a proposal for an XFL-style kickoff model that, if approved, would take effect next season.

Now comes what could be the trickiest step: selling the proposal to the traditionalists among NFL teams and their owners, who generally are reluctant to accept anything they consider too gimmicky.

The competition committee expects to present the finalized proposal to the owners at the annual league meeting later this month in Orlando. The measure must receive at least 24 votes among the 32 teams to be ratified, potentially on a one-year trial basis. If the approval process becomes complicated, it could spill over to the next owners’ meeting, in May.

NFL leaders have called the kickoff the sport’s most hazardous play, with unacceptably high injury rates. They have said the play could be eliminated entirely if it can’t be made safer. Last offseason, the owners approved a proposal to place the ball at the 25-yard line — in what amounted to a touchback — on any fair catch of a kickoff made inside the 25-yard line.

That did make the play safer. Players suffered only eight concussions on kickoffs last season, down from 20 in 2022. But NFL health and safety officials attributed that 60 percent decline almost entirely to a sharp reduction in kickoff returns. Teams returned only 22 percent of kickoffs last season, down from about 38 percent the previous season. If teams couldn’t use high kickoffs just short of the end zone to try to pin opponents deep in their own territory — since the returning team could just fair-catch those kicks — they figured they might as well just kick the ball through the end zone and be done with it.

The kickoff became what Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, called a dead, ceremonial play. That was particularly true during Super Bowl LVIII last month in Las Vegas, when the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers combined for 13 touchbacks — and no returns — on 13 kickoffs.

The NFL eventually could decide to just place the ball at the 25-yard line and be done with kickoffs forevermore. But the league wants to avoid that. NFL leaders talk about wanting to “keep the foot in the game” and point to Chicago Bears kick-returning great Devin Hester being elected last month to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That’s why league health and safety officials studied the XFL kickoff alignment and other possible remedies. It’s why special teams coordinators John Fassel of the Dallas Cowboys, Darren Rizzi of the New Orleans Saints and Richard Hightower of the Bears worked with the competition committee last week in Indianapolis on the pending kickoff proposal.

The NFL probably won’t refer to its proposal as the XFL kickoff. But branding issues aside, the measure expected to be put before the owners for a ratification vote will resemble the kickoff model the XFL once used. The kicker would line up alone on his side of the field, probably around the same spot — the 35-yard line — as in the current NFL kickoff rule. The other members of the kicking team would line up far down the field, five yards apart from the blockers on the returning team. That setup would eliminate the issues that lead to such violent collisions and produce such high injury rates under the traditional kickoff alignment.

The proposal might allow the returning team to have as many as two returners. It perhaps would require the ball to land between the goal line and the 25-yard line. There would be a severe penalty for a kickoff into the end zone or out of bounds, with the ball perhaps being placed at the 30- or 35-yard line for a touchback. The idea, after all, is to encourage returns.

Once the returner catches the ball, the play would resemble a play from the line of scrimmage, with similar blocking rules. The setup might prompt coaching creativity, with reverses or across-the-field laterals. The hope is the injury rate would resemble that of plays from the line of scrimmage — and that the return rate would skyrocket. Vincent spoke last week of getting the return rate back to 36 or 38 percent and putting thousands of active plays per season back into the game. Others connected to the process say they could envision the return rate being as high as 80 percent.

“It would feel like an NFL play” from scrimmage, one person familiar with the deliberations said. According to that person, the revised format probably would lead to teams putting smaller players on the field for kickoffs and could result in changes to roster construction.

The proposal must address onside kicks. One possibility would be to require the kicking team to declare its intention, at which point the alignment would revert to the traditional kickoff setup. Another approach could be to allow the kicking team to attempt to convert a fourth-and-15 (or fourth-and-20) offensive play to try to retain possession of the ball.

That’s where the gimmick aspect comes in. Proposals in previous years for the fourth-and-15 or fourth-and-20 alternative to the onside kick have gotten nowhere with the owners. There is a chance that this kickoff proposal could face similar opposition.

“You’re always going to have people that are traditionalists and therefore immediately have their guard up,” Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons’ chief executive and the competition committee chairman, said last week in Indianapolis. “I think we just have to be open-minded enough to say: Can we bring plays back in the game that have gone out of the game? And if we can in a creative way, we should consider it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get 24 votes. But it means that we’ve got to get it on the table and consider it.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell attended last week’s meetings in Indianapolis. Goodell said during Super Bowl week that the league needs to “innovate” to “find a way to keep the kickoff in the game.”

The participating special teams coaches were scheduled to meet over the weekend. The competition committee has a set of meetings in Florida before the league meeting in Orlando. Vincent said last week he expected the proposal to be completed this week and is hopeful it will be approved.

“I think everyone was just encouraged,” Vincent said, “that there are some alternatives coming.”

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