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Analysis | This proposal could be a cure for the NFL’s kickoff woes

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The NFL wanted reinvent the kick-off this offseason may be his last and best attempt to keep the game in the game. League decision-makers are trying to make the kickoff both safer and more relevant, a balance they have failed to strike. in previous efforts.

This part of the process is almost complete. League representatives, members of the NFL competition committee and special teams coaches from several teams put the finishing touches on a proposed XFL-style launch model which, if approved, would come into effect next season.

Now comes what could be the trickiest step: selling the proposal to the traditionalists among NFL teams and their owners, who are generally reluctant to accept anything they consider too fanciful.

The competition committee plans to present the finalized proposal to owners at the league’s annual meeting later this month in Orlando. The measure must receive at least 24 votes among the 32 teams to be ratified, potentially as a one-year trial. If the approval process becomes complicated, it could spill over into the next owners’ meeting in May.

NFL executives have called the kickoff the most dangerous play in sports, with unacceptably high injury rates. They said the game could be eliminated altogether if it could not be made safer. Last offseason, owners approved a proposal to place the ball at the 25-yard line – in what amounted to a touchback – on any good catch of a kickoff taken inside. the 25 yard line.

This made the game safer. Players suffered just eight concussions on kickoffs last season, compared to 20 in 2022. But NFL health and safety officials attributed this 60 percent drop almost entirely to a sharp reduction in kickoff returns. Teams returned just 22 percent of kickoffs last season, down from about 38 percent the previous season. If teams couldn’t use high kickoffs just short of the end zone to try to pin their opponents deep in their own territory – since the returning team could just catch those kicks – they figured that they might as well kick the ball all the way. zone and be done with it.

The kickoff became what Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, called a dead ceremonial play. That was especially true during Super Bowl LVIII last month in Las Vegas, when the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers combined for 13 touchbacks — and no returns — on 13 kickoffs.

The NFL could eventually decide to just put the ball at the 25-yard line and be done with kickoffs forever. But the league wants to avoid that. NFL executives talk about wanting to “keep their foot in the game” and point out that great Devin Hester, returning from the Chicago Bears, was elected last month to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That’s why league health and safety officials studied the XFL’s kickoff alignment and others possible remedies. That’s why special teams coordinators John Fassel of the Dallas Cowboys, Darren Rizzi of the New Orleans Saints and Richard Hightower of the Bears worked with the competition committee last week in Indianapolis on the kickoff proposal on hold.

The NFL likely won’t refer to its proposal as the XFL’s kickoff. But branding issues aside, the measure expected to go before owners for a ratification vote will resemble the launch model once used by the XFL. The kicker would line up alone on his side of the field, likely around the same spot – the 35-yard line – as in the current NFL kickoff rule. The other members of the kicking team line up far down the field, five yards from the returning team’s blockers. This configuration would eliminate the problems that lead to such violent collisions and produce such high injury rates in the traditional kickoff alignment.

The proposal could allow the returning team to have up to two returning players. Maybe the ball should land between the goal line and the 25-yard line. There would be a harsh penalty for a kickoff in the end zone or out of bounds, with the ball perhaps placed on the 30 or 35 yard line for a touchback. The idea, after all, is to encourage returns.

Once the returner catches the ball, the play would resemble a play from the line of scrimmage, with similar blocking rules. The configuration could stimulate the creativity of coaches, with backs or full-backs on the field. The hope is that the injury rate would resemble that of plays at the line of scrimmage – and that the return rate would skyrocket. Vincent talked last week about getting the return rate down to 36 or 38 percent and putting thousands of active plays back into the game per season. Others connected to the process say they could be looking at a return rate of up to 80 percent.

“It would look like an NFL play” during a scrimmage, a person familiar with the deliberations said. According to this person, the revised format would likely lead to teams putting smaller players on the field for kickoffs and could result in changes to roster construction.

The proposal must address onside kicks. One possibility would be to require the kicking team to declare their intention, in which case the alignment would revert to the traditional kickoff setup. Another approach could be to allow the kicking team to attempt to convert a fourth-and-15 (or fourth-and-20) offensive play in an attempt to maintain possession of the ball.

This is where the gadget side comes in. Proposals from previous years as the alternatives fourth-and-15 or fourth-and-20 to the onside kick went nowhere with the owners. It is possible that this proposed launch will face similar opposition.

“There will always be people who are traditionalists and therefore immediately on guard,” Rich McKay, general manager of the Atlanta Falcons and chairman of the competition committee, said last week in Indianapolis. “I think we just have to be open-minded enough to say: Can we bring games back into the game that are gone? And if we can creatively, we should think about it. This doesn’t mean you’ll get 24 votes. But that means we have to put it on the table and think about it.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell attended last week’s meetings in Indianapolis. Goodell said during Super Bowl week that the league needed to “innovate” to “find a way to keep the kickoff in the game.”

Participating special teams coaches were scheduled to meet this weekend. The competition committee is holding a series of meetings in Florida before the league meeting in Orlando. Vincent said last week that he expected the proposal to be finalized this week and is hopeful it will be approved.

“I think everyone was just encouraged,” Vincent said, “that there were alternatives coming.”



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