Over the years we've seen the evolution of the National Football League towards a safer version of the sport that aims to reduce the high rate of severe injuries, from protecting the quarterback to penalising defenses.
On Tuesday 23rd May 2023 the NFL announced that they will be trialling a new kickoff rule for the 2023 season in an attempt to decrease the league's concussion rate.
The new rule explained
The new rule will establish a touchback-scenario for all kickoffs fair caught behind the 25-yard line.
This means that kickoff returners can call for a fair catch on any ball that falls behind their 25-yard line, and the offense will be given the ball at the 25-yard line for their first snap of the drive. This is a big change from the previous rule which would have seen the offense start their possession at the same point the ball was fair-caught.
The new rule does not prevent returns from the receiving team but is expected to reduce the return rate and increase player safety as a result.
Reasons for the change
The main reason for implementing the new rule is to reduce the amount of concussions suffered by NFL players.
Kickoffs are notorious for resulting in severe injuries, especially concussions, due to the simple nature of the play - where a full kickoff team is running full speed at an often-stationary returner.
Competition committee chairman Rich McKay summed up the reason for the change with the following:
The kickoff play for us has been a play that has had a lot of changes for us over the years, all really driven by health and safety. The concussion rate on the play has gone up. It's gone up because the ball is being returned more by kicks that are being hung inside the 5-yard line. College (football) made this rule change in maybe 2018 or 2019. We looked at their data and said, ‘you know what, this is the right thing to do now.’
On Tuesday, McKay and NFL executive Jeff Miller shared their analysis, which suggests that the number of kickoff returns is projected to fall from 38% to 31%. And they also anticipate a 15% reduction in concussion rates as a result of the change.
Response from the league
Although NFL owners approved this rule proposal, we have already seen an uproar from coaches, players and fans following the announcement.
All 32 special teams coaches, along with 34 players across the league have opposed the change, according to MMQB’s Albert Breer.
"You don't want to take too many pieces away and you'll be playing flag football."— Lineups (@lineups) May 24, 2023
-Andy Reid is not a fan of the new fair catch rulepic.twitter.com/GoJXZygPh7
When asked why they didn’t listen to those coaches, competition committee chairman Rich McKay said:
At the end of the day, health and safety drives decisions like this. I’ve sat on the health and safety committee for a number of years now. We used that committee to give us data and inform us on plays involved higher risk of injury, and then take it to the competition committee and try to come up with a proposal that it can deal with those.
NFL considering the XFL kickoff
The NFL has hinted at considering the XFL's kickoff rule, but they'll need to gather a significant amount of data on kickoff injuries before they properly consider the change.
In the XFL, the kickoff coverage players are positioned five yards ahead of the kicker, while the blockers are lined up five yards away from the coverage players, and no one can move until the ball is caught. The XFL claims that this change has improved player safety, plus 97% of kickoffs in the XFL are returned.
Jeff Miller, the Executive Vice President of Communications, Public Affairs, and Policy, mentioned that they are examining such proposals.
[We’re looking at data] certainly from the XFL, some certainly from the USFL, certainly from the European League of American football. If there’s American football being played somewhere in there trying something different, we want to understand it.
It's difficult to argue that the rule change won't have an effect on fans and players enjoyment of the game. Throughout history we've seen some of the greatest plays on kick returns and even some legendary careers from return specialists. It's tough to accept that we may never see these moments again, but if the NFL's prediction of 15% fewer concussions is correct, it may be a small price to pay.