EAGAN, Minn. — NFL special teams coaches were vehemently against the new rule change to the kickoff play announced Tuesday, but they should have seen it coming.
The kickoff has long been the NFL’s most dangerous play, and the league contends that concussion and other injury numbers have gotten worse in recent years. The new rule voted in by NFL owners will make it a touchback on the 25-yard line whenever a returner makes a fair catch on any kickoff inside the 25. The NFL predicts the rule will reduce the number of kickoff returns from 38 to 31 percent, and reduce concussions by about 15 percent.
“The kickoff play has the highest rate of concussion every single year. Can’t stand by and do nothing,” said Jeff Miller, NFL executive vice president of communications. “Not to say that there won’t be some unintended consequences, but sitting still and continuing to do nothing was unacceptable, and I think that’s where the membership came down on this.”
But the insistence on changing that rule for the sake of player safety carried a whiff of insincerity given the other rules approved by the NFL this year. In March, owners approved a rule that would allow teams to play multiple Sunday-Thursday short-week games in a season. At this week’s meeting, owners approved flex scheduling late in the season for Thursdays.
Playing once on a Sunday-Thursday short week is tough enough for athletes who crash into each other 70 times per game, 17 games per season. But with the new rules, seven teams are slated to play twice on a short week in 2023 — the Bears, Saints, Steelers, Commanders, 49ers, Packers, and Lions.
Commissioner Roger Goodell shot back at the notion that the NFL is putting players at risk by having them play more short-week games.
“We have data on the safety of the game, that there’s been no difference, in fact slightly lower [injury rates] on Thursday night,” Goodell said. “We haven’t seen [more injuries] in the data since we’ve been playing since 2006, so we don’t think it’s inconsistent at all with player safety.”
The traditional kickoff play, though, appears to be incompatible with player safety, with players running at top speeds and colliding with each other. The NFL has made several changes in recent years to reduce the number of kickoff returns — moving the kick up to the 35-yard line, moving the touchback up to the 25, eliminating running starts for the kicking team, requiring even spacing of players — but kickoffs and punts remain the most dangerous plays, at double the concussion rate, per the league.
Rich McKay, chairman of the Competition Committee, said NFL kickers have increased the number of high, shorter kickoffs in the last couple of years, leading to more returns and more concussions. The NFL responded Tuesday with the new fair catch rule that will be implemented on a one-year trial basis.
“The concussion rate on the kickoff has trended up over the last two years in a pretty dramatic fashion,” McKay said. “Let’s just make it for one year so that we know what unintended consequences we may learn, and then let’s really have a discussion about what is the long-term future of this play.”
While the rule hopefully will reduce concussions and injuries, NFL special teams coaches are incensed over it. One NFC special teams coordinator told the Globe it is “[expletive] stupid.” Even head coaches John Harbaugh and Bill Belichick, who is constantly urging the NFL to “keep the foot in football,” reportedly lobbied against the change.
The worry from the coaches is that the rule will make irrelevant an important and exciting play that has always been a part of the game. With kickoffs now eligible for fair catches, it could lead to more squib kicks and uglier returns, and potentially won’t even reduce returns or concussions.
“This rule does nothing to address concussions,” the special teams coordinator told the Globe.
But McKay said the NFL observed how college football adopted the same rule in 2018 and it hasn’t ruined kickoffs or special teams.
“We were informed a little bit by college coaches, and after the fair catch rule, their squibs actually went down,” McKay said. “We talked to our own coaches who were probably not as emotionally attached to this issue, and they said they don’t envision the squib being the action. Could it happen? Sure, but I think that we’re comfortable that that would be a better place than the place we’re currently in.”
The NFL emphasized that the new kickoff rule is only for a one-year trial. The league implemented instant replay for pass interference in 2018 and quickly scrapped it the next year.
But special teams coaches had better be prepared; if concussions don’t come down on kickoffs this year, more changes will be in store for 2024.
“There may be more to come, because both the kickoff and punt continue to have a higher rate of injury than run and pass plays, and sometimes by a substantial margin,” Miller said. “We want to keep those plays in the game, but we want to keep them in a way where we can decrease some of the risk to the players.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.