The NFL is in a tough spot with kickoffs.
Good luck finding any fans who are good with it being eliminated. Even though kickoffs have been changed enough so almost all of them seem to be touchbacks, there’s a ceremony and tradition involved. Maybe it’s the final stand for fans who don’t like changes designed to make a violent sport safer.
But the NFL has to find a way to make kickoffs safer, somehow. Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy had the strongest statement to date on the issue back in March, when he said kickoffs need to become safer or they will be eliminated. Murphy is on the competition committee.
The middle ground, at least for now, appears to be multiple proposals to change how kickoffs will look.
NFL announces seven rule proposal changes to kickoffs
The NFL announced the rule changes it will discuss at the spring meeting next week, and kickoff rules were the most prominent. Here’s what NFL vice president of football communications Michael Signora tweeted out:
— Michael Signora (@NFLfootballinfo) May 16, 2018
There’s a lot there, so let’s go through some highlights.
The kickoff team will be restricted in how it can line up
One proposal is that teams must have five players on each side of the kicker. Right now the rule is at least four on each side.
The biggest impact this would seem to have would be on onside kicks. The NFL had already cut way back on the old way, where practically the entire kickoff team would line up on the same side for an onside kick. With 5×5 formations being the rule, it would seem very hard to get a recovery on an onside kick.
Kickoff teams won’t get much of a running start under the new rule proposals, either.
The NFL is proposing the kickoff team won’t be able to line up more than 1 yard from the restraining line (which is the line it can’t cross before the ball is kicked, or be called for offsides), which is the 35-yard line for most kickoffs. The current rule is they can line up 5 yards behind it, for a running start. If players are lining up at the 34-yard line, that will be eliminated.
Also, another new proposal states that at least two players must be lined up outside the yard marker on the field, and two players between the inbounds line and the yard-line number. That spreads the field a bit more.
Kickoff return teams will look different too
The kickoff return team will face changes as well.
At least eight players must be in a 15-yard “setup zone” before the kickoff. That means most of the kickoff return team will be bunched up closer to midfield. That rule would reduce speed and space on kickoffs, the NFL said, so fewer collisions with long running starts. It will be odd to see only three players allowed to line up deep on the kickoff return team, if the new rule passes.
Also, wedge blocks will be eliminated. The NFL has already limited those blocks. Under the new rule, only players who were initially lined up in the “setup zone” can double-team an opponent.
Among the rest of the rules that will be proposed, the ball will be dead if it’s not touched by the receiving team and touches the ground in the end zone, resulting in a touchback (receiving teams no longer have to take a knee to down the ball in the end zone). Also, until the ball is touched or the ball hits the ground, no player on the kickoff return team may cross its restraining line toward the kickoff team, or initiate a block in the 15-yard area past the kicking team’s restraining line.
The difficult task of trying to make kickoffs safer
The urgency over fixing kickoffs comes from a study that Murphy said showed concussions are five times as likely to happen on kickoffs than on plays from scrimmage. That’s significant. The NFL has put an emphasis on making the game safer through various rules changes, it can’t do that and also ignore that kickoffs are far more dangerous than any other play.
We’ll see, once the rule proposals are voted on, how much different kickoffs will look in 2018. But it’s pretty clear a lot of changes are on the way.
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