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Reviving a 'dead play': How will Eagles adjust to NFL's new kickoff rule?

Jake Elliott
Jake Elliott

Everyone is still digesting the news that the NFL's kickoff rules in 2024 are changed dramatically and a lot is going to happen in terms of strategy and execution as we see how it works throughout Training Camp and in the preseason game, but this much is undeniable: The new rules create new challenges and, no doubt about it baby, the kickoff is very much back in play for the season ahead.

"The kickoff had kind of become a dead play. There were 13 kickoffs in the Super Bowl, and there were zero returns. We had 88 percent of kickoffs returns in 2003 and in 2023 we were just at about 20 percent. That is a significant drop-off and something had to be done to the play. I think that is how the league is looking at this," said Jon Ferrari, Eagles assistant general manager. "The league had made changes, good changes in the name of player safety, but because of that, you see the 20 percent return rate and the league wanted to answer this question: 'What can we do to incentivize kickoff returns but make them safer.

"I think that was the driver in this new rule."

In case you missed it, the NFL at its Annual Meeting in March voted to approve a new kickoff rule for the 2024 season. Kickoffs will remain at the 35-yard line, but the remaining 10 players on the kicking unit will line up at the opposing team's 40-yard line. The receiving team is able to line up with at least seven players in the "set-up zone," a 5-yard area between their own 35- and 30-yard lines, with a maximum of two returners can line up in the landing zone.

After the ball is kicked, the kicker cannot cross the 50-yard line and the 10 kicking team players cannot move until the ball hits the ground or a player in the landing zone – the area between the receiving team's goal line and its 20-yard line – or goes into the end zone. The receiving team's players in the set-up zone also cannot move until the kick has hit the ground or a player in the landing zone or the end zone. The returner(s) may move at any time before or during the kickoff.

  1. Kickoffs that hit the landing zone must be returned.
  1. Kickoffs that hit the landing zone and then go into the end zone must be returned or downed by the receiving team. If downed, the receiving team would get the ball at its own 20-yard line.
  1. Kickoffs that go into the end zone and stay inbounds that are downed would give the receiving team the ball at its own 30-yard line. Kickoffs that go out of the back of the end zone (in the air or bounces) would also be a touchback at the receiving team's 30-yard line.
  1. Kickoffs short of the landing zone would be treated like a kickoff out of bounds, and the receiving team would get the ball at its own 40-yard line.

The idea? To bring the kickoff, a potentially electrifying and scoreboard-altering play, back into the game and, because the blockers and tacklers are slowed down – separated only by 5 yards instead of racing down the field and engaging in violent collisions – keeping it as safe as possible.

"There are a lot of things that every team is thinking about right now," Ferrari said. "What type of players are you using on the kickoff? The kickoff is now played in much tighter quarters now so what is the size/speed ratio of players on the field at that time? Do you use multiple returners now? What are the blocking schemes like?

"Teams are just now developing their strategy and I think that's great for special teams coordinators and for players on the roster who are looking to make an impact on special teams. This keeps the kicking part of the game in the game. We're expecting to see more kickoff returns, more plays, and that is always a good thing."

The XFL served as a template for the NFL's new kickoff rule, and while what the NFL is doing isn't an exact duplicate of the XFL kickoff rules, there were some noteworthy numbers that the NFL noticed, including better starting field position for offenses in the NFL because of big kickoff returns – 6 percent of XFL returns last season gained 40-plus yards, far higher than the NFL's average.

That led to more points and, ultimately, that provides more entertainment. That's the goal, right?

Well, it's also very possible that great kickoffs that are strategically targeted in the landing zone will also pin return men deep in their own territory – approximately 20 percent of XFL returns last season started at or inside the 20-yard line while the NFL had a rate of 6 percent at or inside the 20-yard line.

"It's a significant structural rule change and, to me, it's one of the most impactful things I've ever seen. You don't know where it's going to go," Ferrari said. "The average starting field position the past few years has been at about the 24-and-a-half-yard line. Where is average starting field position going to be in 2024? The touchback comes back to the 30-yard line, where it was the 25-yard line last year. That's significant.

"It's new. It's unconventional and it's complicated and those are three characteristics that usually derail a potential new rule change. In this case, I think everybody knew something had to happen, that the status quo was not going to hold. We didn't want to lose the kickoff from the game. There was some compromise and I'm sure we'll revisit it throughout the preseason and even after the season is complete.

"It took two days to get this passed (by a vote of 29-3) and I think everybody is excited to see where it goes and how it impacts the game in so many ways. That's what teams right now are trying to wrap their heads around, how this rule change impacts so many parts of building a roster and then implementing the kickoff."

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