Cory's Corner: Change Is Good In Keeping Kickoffs

There are plenty of people that don't like change, but a kickoff rule change just saved one of the most exciting plays in the NFL from being out of the game. 

The NFL showcased its ability to pivot. 

(Coincidentally, that Friends episode has been running on a loop in my head. “Pivaht!”)

The NFL has adopted the XFL kickoff rule as a last ditch effort to resuscitate a dying part of the game. There were 1,970 touchbacks last season, which turned out to be 22 percent. Compare that with an 89 percent kickoff return rate in 2003. 

The NFL is sidestepping boring. That’s what I like about it. They are willing to make changes to make the game relevant — and hopefully safer. 

“This is going to be must-see TV,” said Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. “It’s going to be brand new to everybody.”

That’s why I like it. It’s something that none of us have experienced. I wasn’t fully on board with moving the extra point back 15 yards in 2015, but that has turned out to be a genius move. What was once a simple and boring extra point play has turned into something where anything can happen. It has also motivated head coaches to go for two point conversions more often. Heck, would Lions coach Dan Campbell still be labeled as fearless if he always kicked the extra point?

Change is hard for a lot of people and there are plenty that don’t like the new rule. But let’s be honest, the NFL is just scratching the surface. I’m sure there will be more rules to protect quarterbacks before Patrick Mahomes retires, more confusing replay rules and more addendums to the exhaustive catch rules. 

In order to stay relevant, you have to evolve and that’s exactly what the NFL has done. Even Major League Baseball has evolved from the days of four-hour games with a pitch clock and it has been welcomed by everyone — except players that are walking human rain delays. 

The next step for kickoffs was to just scrap it and let teams start at the 25. Don’t even put the ball on a tee. 

But the kickoff is something special because of its randomness. We all love to see flashy speed and the jitterbug moves. I mean, how amazing was Keisean Nixon’s 105-yard kickoff return vs. Minnesota in Week 17 of the 2022 season? A kickoff returner is an athlete personified and it should be preserved. Think about not being feasted with Deion Sanders’ kickoff return highlights.

This was the right move. And I applaud the NFL for having the foresight to take a last step approach.

Yes, I know that as we get older, we continue to go further and further away from what we remember to be football back in the 1970s, 80s and even 90s. That was a glorious time for pro football, but it also came at a huge physical cost. 

This is a way to try and preserve the game by also saving wear and tear on bodies. It’s not going to be perfect at first. In fact, it’s probably going to look like a hand-me-down sweater that you were forced to wear for family pictures. But eventually, kickoffs will make sense and more importantly, the reasoning behind it will make sense. 

So don’t get upset that a major part of the game is changing. Be satisfied that the game is in good hands with people that want it to move forward by not letting dynamic plays fade away forever. 

 

 

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Cory Jennerjohn is a graduate from UW-Oshkosh and has been in sports media for over 15 years. He was a co-host on "Clubhouse Live" and has also done various radio and TV work as well. He has written for newspapers, magazines and websites. He currently is a columnist for CHTV and also does various podcasts. He recently earned his Masters degree from the University of Iowa. He can be found on Twitter: @Coryjennerjohn

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Comments (24)

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PackEyedOptimist's picture

March 30, 2024 at 06:49 am

I'm fine with the change, but I think it has the potential to give up a LOT of TD returns, especially with creative approaches. There will be teams who start from scratch with their kickoff return approach.

Personally, I'd experiment with having a strong, but also fast, run-through-tackle-attempts RB as the returner, and I'd put a couple of offensive guards in front of him. The new rules mean you don't need blockers who can run 20 yards. I think we'll see bigger blockers on the return team. I'd even consider using a couple of late round picks to specifically target guys who are excellent pulling guards JUST for the kickoff return team.

If the blockers give the returner a crease, he can take it to the house easily, because the defenders are spread out, so they don't have the angles to converge on the returner.

If this happens, I could see the league suspending the change mid-season, because it could potentially become the "National Kickoff Return League." Perhaps they'll see that during the preseason and change it before the regular season.

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murf7777's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:16 am

I didn’t think the NFL would agree to change to this rule if the XFL had considerably more KO’s returned for TD.

So, I looked up the XFL stats on KO returns for the 2023 season. Last year the XFL, with close to 400 returns, had only 1 KO returned for a TD. I was very surprised by that. In addition, the average return was around 21 yards. The worst averaged 19 and best 24 yards per return.

By comparison, the NFL in 2022 had 6 KO’s out of around 1000 returned for a TD. That’s a higher percentage than the 2023 XFL. I think with the higher level of talent in the NFL the KO’s returned for a TD in this new system will be close to what has happened recently in the NFL. Based on these stats, I’m not too worried we will see a big or even any increase in KO TD’s.

I’m excited to watch this new version. But, I tend to embrace change. This is going to make kicking accuracy more important because if you kick it to the 15, by average you will get the ball on the 36. I’m all for creating more excitement.

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Starrbrite's picture

March 30, 2024 at 02:12 pm

Great report Murf.

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Coldworld's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:31 am

Over 40 games played, the XFL had one return for a TD even though 97% were returned.

That’s still less returns than in the NFL, but with a 22% return rate, it might be arguably predictive of less of a conversion rate per return than the 4 in the NFL last season. Certainly it does not suggest a dramatic increase in direct scoring is likely. Nor does it seem field position will dramatically change in average terms. The average return yardage in the NFL was 23.0 last season while the XFL was 21.3.

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murf7777's picture

March 30, 2024 at 10:54 am

The new rules will penalize the kicking team for kicking the ball too far. I suspect there will be better field position with the new rules. The stats I found is the average for the NFL was 28 yard line and for the 2023 XFL season it was 31 yard line. As you stated, not dramatically different. I thought it would be a bit more.

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Coldworld's picture

March 30, 2024 at 11:25 am

Interesting, as that is pretty similar to the reduced length of return in the XFL. Of course the all pro XFL returner was Darrius Shepherd, but the defensive talent wasn’t on a par either.

Overall it looks like the mode and median field position won’t change much, but the range of outlier plays can only go up from a touchback. So more excitement occasionally but little dramatic change over a season.

Shepherd of course is a small, fairly agile WR (and former Packer). I had wondered if the change would have favored a RB type, but that also is not particularly supported by the XFL experience last year.

Rizzi has stated that the physical make up of kicking units changed in the XFL, presumably larger bodies in the middle, but I didn’t watch the XFL and can’t see any details as to how and how much. That could affect the make up of the very back end of the roster and perhaps UDFA invites.

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LambeauPlain's picture

March 30, 2024 at 07:01 am

What is the rate of injury during NFL kickoffs (those returned) vs other football plays? I ask because I have not seen the statistics.

The assumption with all these KO changes is to reduce the higher player injury rate. Perhaps the NFL has communicated the numbers...can anyone share what they are?

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MooPack's picture

March 30, 2024 at 08:04 am

Here's a graph breakdown from a couple of years ago. 2017-2021 by play type. Pros and College. I'm sure there is something more recent, but this is what I found from a quick search.

https://www.sportsinfosolutions.com/2022/04/06/study-what-is-so-dangerou...

Head and knee look to be the difference. I wouldn't call it by a staggering amount, but take away from it is there is a somewhat higher chance on kickoffs and punts.

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LambeauPlain's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:17 am

Thanks MooPack! That is what I was looking for. Great analysis.

They lump punts and kick offs together and wonder if one has more injuries than the other. I have not heard much about the punt game being under review. Maybe it will be too.

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Coldworld's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:06 am

The XFL cited a reduction in injuries. 97% of XFL kickoffs resulted in a return compared to 37% in the NFL last year. So despite much fewer games, the XFL injury sample should have some meaning.

Players in the NFL suffered only eight concussions on kickoffs last season, down from 20 in 2022. But NFL health and safety officials attributed that 60 percent decline almost entirely to a sharp reduction in kickoff returns. Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers combined for 13 touchbacks — and no returns — on 13 kickoffs during the last Superbowl, for example.

I did find out that some of the best special teams coordinators: John Fassel of the Dallas Cowboys, Darren Rizzi (the one who got away) of the New Orleans Saints and Richard Hightower of the Bears all were involved in getting this change in motion.

Unfortunately, I can’t find actual numbers, only that the reason cited was the blockers and tacklers being only five yards apart and not getting a running start precluded full-speed collisions. That makes sense to me beyond just concussions.

Overall, I think I prefer to see this than endless touch backs, particularly in domes and good weather games. I wonder if the recent rule gave a slight advantage to teams who play in a dome in that they could put less emphasis on a return game knowing over half of the games were indoors?

Overall, it should make more games more interesting. If it helps with the injuries, so much the better. I wonder how body types in the kick units change and if it promotes running backs as returners rather than more WR/DB type bodies. The XFL returns look more like a more spread out run play in terms of how they develop and are blocked.

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LambeauPlain's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:18 am

Thanks, CW...good information.

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Guam's picture

March 30, 2024 at 08:23 am

I never found kickoffs all that exciting. Maybe the new rules will make them better, but I wouldn't mind just putting the ball on the 25 and start play.

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Leatherhead's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:22 am

It's an exciting play, Cory. I mean, once or twice a season a guy looks like he might break a long one. Once every 4 or 5 years, he does break a long one.

Remember Nixon's TD return in 2022? How many injuries, penalties, and turnovers have we had on kickoff returns since then? Keep counting. By the time we break another return past midfield, we'll have a significant pile of turnovers, penalties, and injuries.

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:33 am

Cory nice article and I agree!

Thanks for the posters on the stats. I am interested in the change as I too found kickoffs to be extremely boring last year.

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Alberta_Packer's picture

March 30, 2024 at 11:11 am

The NFL has modified the XFL kickoff rules - so as to not be charged with a copyright / patent / intellectual property / plagiarism or whatever violation. Due to this slight of hand - Mark Murphy wanted to trial the new rules - before its final implementation. That is why he voted against the new rule(s). Kudos to him. It's like if a pharmaceutical company released a new product to the public - without first testing it. Of course the most safety conscious approach (for the players) was to trial the new rules - so as to make the necessary changes that could possibility reduce the incidence of injuries. Of course the NFL and 29 of its owners voted otherwise.

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Coldworld's picture

March 30, 2024 at 12:01 pm

The most safety conscious approach is no kickoff at all. As to the risk of some action for stealing IP, the only material difference keeping the kick off from the 35 not moving it to the 30 is not going to do that when the fact of inspiration has been overtly recorded in multiple occasions by NFL and team contributors.

It’s almost impossible to assert such actions in the rules of an established sport anyway and the XFL had probably gained far more free publicity than it could ever afford, so good luck on establishing harm/damages.

Murphy wanting a maximum of 3 game preseason test struck me as bizarre. For a start, they can watch the XFL film of this season and last. Secondly, that would entail a limited sample complied with mostly back up and mixed and matched player groups and analysis post final roster cut downs that could result in a different rule for the season.

As it is, this season is a trial. They’ve already said they could move the kick back next year or make other tweaks. Either do it or don’t, but a 3 week trial during which all teams will be learning how they want to approach it and rush analysis seemed bizarre to me, and obviously to most other teams, perhaps 31.

Do it or don’t. If you do do it, allow time for teams to learn and adjust and that will take settled rosters and more than 3 weeks. An in season trial with a pre playoff review would have at least made some sense and had precedent.

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GregC's picture

March 30, 2024 at 01:48 pm

Sounds like this will most likely result in slightly better starting field position, on average, for offenses after kickoffs. Probably nothing dramatic. One thing's for sure, though: The TV announcers are going to be in their glory explaining all of the rules and analyzing each team's strategy.

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jont's picture

March 30, 2024 at 01:58 pm

Corey mentioned more replays.

This season "the replay assistant can review the calls and determine if a quarterback was in the pocket or under duress on an intentional grounding call, they can decide if there is 'clear and obvious' evidence that a defender did not make contact with the head or neck area of a quarterback on a roughing the passer call and they can reverse a late hit out of bounds call if it is determined that the runner was hit while still clearly inbounds," according to Bleacher Report.

On the one hand the NFL tries to make the gae more exciting and on the other it inserts more breaks in the action to watch a few slo-mo replays.

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

March 30, 2024 at 02:37 pm

The current kick offs were not very exciting...kick the ball, put it on the 25 and go to commerical.

At least the new rule change should give the offenses starting positions around the 35 yard line and a better chance to open up the play book with a little more confidence.

This rule change should reduce the value of a big leg on kick offs.

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Starrbrite's picture

March 30, 2024 at 02:38 pm

I’m all for the new kickoff format. I like the idea that the kicker must be more precise—not simply kicking the ball thru the endzone. There’ll be more strategy and injuries should decrease because the tacklers will have limited space for a head-start. It will still appear to be a demolition derby, but the engines will have a governor.
Go Packers!!!

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NoNonsense's picture

March 30, 2024 at 09:58 pm

I certainly like the change. It will make it a more interesting play and if it comes with fewer injuries than it's the best of both worlds. Worth a try at least.

Now, since the Kicker will be the last line of defense I wonder if some teams will consider using players other than Kickers to actually kick the ball off and if the ability to make an open field tackle as a kicker will get teams to keep 2 kickers on their roster, a slightly different kickoff specialist and the regular FG kicker.

What I found a little curious too is reading the XFL has scrapped this version of the kickoff this year, anybody else hear or read that? Wonder if they are going back to the normal kickoff since they don't really seem to care as much about injuries in that league.

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Coldworld's picture

March 31, 2024 at 09:19 am

I think the XFL is now part of the UFL with the USFL. The result is an amalgam of rules from both leagues, neither of which I have watched, plus new gimmicks.

The kick off is now from the kicking team’s 20 but otherwise sounds more like a college kick off at its root. However there are other tweaks. Among those perhaps the most notable , a team in the 4th quarter may elect to keep the ball after a score and take a 4th and 12 on the 20.

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egbertsouse's picture

March 31, 2024 at 07:41 am

BS like this stupid rule is turning the NFL into the WWE. Add this to the interminable replays and the ubiquitous showboating after every three yard gain or successful tackle and the sport is becoming virtually unwatchable. It’s becoming a clown show. And you damn kids better stay off my lawn!

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Starrbrite's picture

March 31, 2024 at 04:12 pm

That cracked me up Egbert.
I do agree with you on the celebrations—everyone beats their chest on every play; no matter how good/bad the results—sickening.
Good conversing with you, but I gotta get back to the nursing home.

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