Radical NFL Rule Change Revives A Once-Exciting Play

Kickoff returns are returning to the NFL.

Team owners on Tuesday approved a new rule that will take what essentially had become “a dead play” and make it an integral part of the game again, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the league hasn’t announced the change.

The major overhaul to special teams — which has been in the works for years — takes elements of the kickoff rules used in the XFL and tweaks them for use in the NFL beginning in 2024. The rule will be in play for one season on a trial basis and then be subject to renewal in 2025.

NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay said Monday there was urgency to vote on this rule before the draft because it could impact the way teams structure rosters. There were 1,970 touchbacks on kickoffs last season that now could be returns.

“I think it’s good for the game,” said Rams coach Sean McVay, who is one of three coaches on the eight-member committee. “I think all the intentions are in the right direction, and I’m really appreciative of the time and effort that the special teams coordinators have put in to try to be able to keep this play relevant in our game.”

Deebo Samuel of the 49ers returns a kickoff against the Ravens in a play that had become somewhat rare. There were nearly 2,000 touchbacks on kickoffs last season that could now be returns under the rules change.

For a standard kickoff, the ball would be kicked from the 35-yard line with the 10 kick coverage players lined up at the opposing 40, with five on each side of the field.

The return team would have at least nine blockers lined up in the “set up zone” between the 30- and 35-yard line, with at least seven of those players touching the 35. There would be up to two returners allowed inside the 20.

Only the kicker and two returners would be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or was touched by a returner inside the 20.

Any kick that reaches the end zone in the air can be returned, or the receiving team can opt for a touchback and possession at the 30. Any kick that reaches the end zone in the air and goes out of bounds or out of the end zone also would result in a touchback at the 30.

If a ball hits a returner or the ground before the end zone and goes into the end zone, a touchback would be at the 20 or the play could be returned. Any kick received in the field of play would have to be returned.

“It’s a drastic kind of move that’s going to be way different,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator. “Is that the right move at this time? I don’t know. I think that’s to be determined.”

Under current rules, any touchback — or if a returner calls for a fair catch in the field of play — results in the receiving team getting the ball at its 25.

The proposal needed 24 of 32 votes to pass.

“I’m all for it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You have 2,000 dead plays. Nobody wants to see that. It’ll add excitement and newness.”