NFL owners meetings: Uptick in injuries could mean new look for kickoffs in 2023

Detroit Free Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The kickoff is coming under increased scrutiny, and NFL owners will consider a rules change this week that could both make the play safer and dramatically impact how teams approach it this fall.

The NFL competition committee submitted eight playing rules proposals for owners to debate at their annual spring meeting Sunday-Wednesday at the Phoenix Biltmore Hotel, including one that would place the ball at the 25-yard line after a fair catch on most kickoffs in the field of play.

The proposal is in line with a rule used in college football, and one that NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said could reduce brain injuries by up to 25% on kickoffs.

Last year, NFL players suffered 20 concussions on kickoffs, Vincent said, 10 while making tackles and 10 on blocks.

“There is a college (rule) that may be in place that may reduce that number, and I think that’s the ultimate goal,” Vincent said. “We talk about player protection here, so that was a thought. It may not be perfect. I think it will warrant some good discussion on the floor, but we do, the science and just talking to the Biocore team (that provides injury data for the NFL), we potentially could be looking at anywhere between a 20 and 25% injury reduction. That’s significant, so that’s kind of where we kind of landed there kind of going into Arizona.”

If passed, the new rule would place the ball at the 25-yard line for all fair catches made inside that spot.

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The NFL moved the placement of the ball after touchbacks on kickoffs to the 25-yard line in 2016, and has continued to tweak kickoff rules in the years since in the interest of player safety.

Rather than give opponents the ball at the 25, NFL teams often use “sky kicks” designed to land inside the 5-yard line and force a return. Under the new proposal, teams could fair catch those kicks and still get the ball at the 25.

Vincent said the competition committee, in its formal meetings since the end of the season, discussed other ways to modify kickoffs, including the rules used in the XFL and USFL, but that there was not enough injury data from those experiments to warrant a change.

In the XFL, kickers kick off from their own 30-yard line while the rest of the kick coverage team starts at the opponent’s 35-yard line — 5 yards away from the return team. Only the kicker and returner can move before the ball is fielded, and touchbacks are spotted at the 35.

In the USFL, kickoffs start from the 25-yard line, the receiving team must have eight players between its 35- and 45-yard line and the ball is live once it travles 20 yards in the air.

The USFL also allows teams to retain possession after a score by substituting a fourth-and-12 play from its own 33-yard line for a traditional onside kick.

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The Philadelphia Eagles proposed a similar rule that will be up for debate this week: To allow teams to attempt a fourth-and-20 play from their own 20-yard line in place of an onside kick. If a team converts the play, it continues possession from the spot of the conversion. If it fails, the defensive team takes possession at the spot of the ball.

“Kickoff is one that frankly we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Vincent said. “Some of the (injury) numbers that we went back to not only pre-COVID but the changing of some of the rules. And you think about 20 concussions, 10 on tackles, 10 on blocks, this is one of those non-negotiables.”

The competition committee did not endorse any of the nine playing rules proposals put forth by teams, including three by the Detroit Lions. The committee also proposed moving the spot of the ball from the 20- to the 25-yard line after a touchback on a punt in an attempt to discourage returners from trying to return punts from deep in their own territory.

Similar to kickoffs, Vincent said punts are “not only the most penalized play … but also the most injurious play” in football.

“Anything that we can do in working together to reduce all injuries and particular those head and neck injuries,” he said. “So that was a point of emphasis for the committee as well.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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