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NFL adopts new kickoff rule for one-year trial

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By: Skarekrow

Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

An explainer and some thoughts on the matter

Last year I created two pieces of content on the changes to kickoffs, which included a different fair-catch option, and more (articles here and here). My ultimate thoughts included that the kickoff was boring and predictable already, and that the 2023 changes were one step along a path of just eliminating the play altogether. Well I might have been wrong. The NFL adopted drastically different rules for the 2024 season on a one-year trial and on the surface it looks like they want MORE kickoff returns, not less. Let’s dive in!

The Rule Itself

you can find more information on the rule right from the NFL itself. But you’re already here so if you want my breakdown I’ve tried to organize the information in a way that should make things a bit easier. Here are a couple graphics that you can refer to along the way as well, which are quite handy.

Zones and lines

  • End zone — Retains its usual definition, begins at the goal line.
  • Setup zone — The five-yard area between the receiving team’s 30- and 35-yard line.
  • Restraining line — The receiving team’s 35-yard line. The end of the setup zone closest to the kicking team’s personnel.
  • Landing zone — The area between the receiving team’s goal line and their own 20-yard line. This is a critical area for the new rule so if you learn one new term, this should be the one.

Alignment and movement

  • Kicking team alignment — The kicker will continue to kick from their own 35-yard line. The ten other players all must have one foot on the receiving team’s 40.
  • Kicking team movement — Fans will now see players waiting. All non-kickers cannot move until the ball touches either a player or the ground in either the end zone or the landing zone. The kicker can move but can’t go beyond the 50 until that same moment.
  • Receiving team alignment, non-returners — At least nine players on the receiving team must be within the setup zone. At least seven of these nine must have one foot on the restraining line (the 35). Players not on the restraining line must be outside the hash marks.
  • Receiving team alignment, returners — Teams can have a maximum of two returners. who must line up in the landing zone.
  • Receiving team movement — Returners can move freely inside the landing zone. All other receiving team players have to wait to move as outlined for the kicking team above.
  • Receiving team variability — The receiving team has more variability in alignment with choices such as number of returners, number of people in the setup zone, etc. but see the full graphic as there will be alignment requirements.

Results of a kickoff

  • If the kickoff is short of the landing zone (between receiving team’s goal line and 20-yard line), it’s treated as out of bounds and the play is dead as the ball hits the ground. The receiving team gets the ball at their own 40.
  • Kickoffs within the landing zone must be returned. No fair catches anymore.
  • Kickoffs landing within the landing zone but rolling into the end zone must be either returned or downed in the end zone. If downed, the ball is spotted at their own 20.
  • If the kick lands in the end zone it can be downed or returned. If downed, the ball is spotted at their own 35.
  • If the ball goes out of the back of the end zone (bounce or air) is a touchback and the ball is spotted at the 35.


  • Onside kicks — They can only be done in the fourth quarter and only by a team that’s trailing. The team has to declare to the officials that they’re attempting an onside kick. If the kick rolls beyond the setup zone untouched, the kicking team is penalized and the return team gets the ball at the opponent’s 20-yard line. You’re reading that right. Onside kicks would use the new alignments, etc. noted above and letting the ball roll too far results in the receiving team getting the ball in the red zone.
  • Penalties that effect kickoffs — Speaking of penalties, any flag that’s imposed on the kickoff will only impact the kicker’s placement on the field. All other players still align exactly as noted above. Additionally, it used to be that some penalties on scoring plays would carry over to the kickoff. That’s no longer the case. Instead, they’ll be assessed on the try attempt after the score. Confused yet? Some penalties on the try attempt can carry over to the kickoff. That will still be the case and follows the rule above. The easiest version is this: Any penalty impacting the kickoff only changes where the kicker is.
  • Safety kicks — These are from the 20-yard line (where they were already) but otherwise follow the same rules as noted above. Kickers will have the option to use a tee.
  • Kicking tees — If the ball falls off the tee twice on a kickoff, teams can no longer have a player hold the ball. Instead they will now be allowed to bring out a kicking stick to stabilize the ball.

The Final Straw

My first glance at the rule proposal had me optimistic. After thinking about it for a bit and mulling over possibilities, I’m starting to get more excited for this change. As noted in my content from last year, it’s been my opinion for a while that kickoffs are predictable and boring. The data suggested a very low degree of variability in outcomes for a play that’s sandwiched between commercial breaks and comes with an elevated injury risk to players. Anything that pushes it toward an actual play is fine in my mind.

So what do I see here? At the very least, this should result in more returns. Teams can force a return by dropping the ball in the landing zone, which I expect will happen more often. This is great news, in my opinion, even though I don’t expect a lot of big plays. I consider it great news because at the minimum we’ll see something other than a touchback or fair catch. I’d rather have a 20-ish yard return that’s fairly “meh” instead of sitting through commercials to watch a return casually start walking forward when it become clear the ball is going over their head.

I absolutely love the structure of the results despite it being a bit more complex. Teams can’t kick through the end zone unless they want to spot the receiving team 35 yards. They also won’t want to kick into the end zone in the first place or risk the same. That heavily incentivizes the kicking team to drop it into the landing zone. From there the receiving team could let it bounce, but they’d be insane to let that happen. If it stays in the landing zone the ball cannot be downed, meaning any time wasted is time for the kicking team to run it down. If it rolls back into the end zone they’re still wasting time by allowing the bounce, and if they elect to down it they’re losing yards by bringing it out to just the 20.

All of the rules are geared toward precision kicks that drop the ball in the landing zone and forcing a return. Once the ball is touched both teams are set to collide, but from a distance of only five yards apart. That prevents the big collisions for no real reason and could incentivize some fun aspects like stunts, jukes, and football moves to try to slip through the other team.

Will all of that actually come to fruition? I don’t know and perhaps I’m looking too closely at the best-case scenarios. But I do know this: Kickoffs are one of the worst plays in football. Predictable. Prone to causing injury. Boring. If we’re going to keep them, it won’t hurt to try and get creative.

Want the shortest version of my opinion? Going into analytics and rules led to “Skare’s Rule of Kickoffs.” That rules was simple. NEVER. RETURN. KICKOFFS. Why bother returning a kick when the outcome is nearly always equivalent to a fair catch or touchback? The current rule shattered the rule. For 2024 the rule will be: ALWAYS. RETURN. KICKOFFS!

Originally posted on Buffalo Rumblings