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NFL owners approve XFL-style kickoff rule

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By: PatrickJudis

Photo by Jeff Dean/Getty Images

Expect a lot more returns next season.

The NFL owners meeting is one of the biggest offseason events after free agency and the draft. Each year all 32 owners get together and discuss possible rule changes with the competition committee and any other issues comments or concerns.

One thing that has been debated for years now is how the NFL handles kickoffs. It has become a practically dead play after the rules changed from the receiving team starting from the 25-yard line instead of the 20. To further that, last season, returners were allowed to call for a fair catch, and it still gave the offense the ball at the 25.

One suggestion that has really stuck for years is the XFL’s handling of returns, and it seems the owners have finally agreed to give the rule a try on a one-year trial basis.

As you can see, the biggest difference from the jump is that the return team and coverage team lineup just five yards apart from each other on the 30 and 35 respectively. In the NFL’s proposed rule change the coverage unit will be lining up at the 40 and the return team at the 35. Neither side is allowed to move from that line until the kickoff is caught or the ball hits the ground.

A difference that isn’t nearly as noticeable is how touchbacks are handled. The NFL previously only punished the kicking team if the kickoff were to go out of bounds, which would have the offense start at the 40-yard line. There is now a whole host of new rules that encourage teams to return the ball and for the kicking team to have the kickoff not just get booted out of the end zone.

There is a key term to the rule change that is important to understand ahead of time. The first is “the landing zone,” which is the space from the goal line to the 20. The name, as it implies, is where the kicking team is meant to kick the ball into.

It can not be stated how crucial the landing zone is to the understanding going forward, as it will be referenced constantly.

  • The kickoff coverage team will line up on the 40, and the receiving team (minus the returner(s)) will line up on the 35. This gets rid of the running start that often leads to the head injuries that were so common from the play.
  • One of the biggest changes outside of how players line up is that any kick that lands in the landing zone must be returned. A returner is not permitted to signal for a fair catch.
  • If the ball is kicked into the end zone, the offense will get the ball starting at the 35. That is a huge incentive not to just kick it in the end zone, which has been one of the most common things over the past decade or so.
  • If the ball rolls into the end zone after landing in the landing zone and is downed, then the offense will start at the 20.
  • If the kickoff falls short of the 20-yard line, then it is considered out of bounds, and the offense starts at the 45.
  • Then there was the already approved change to the rules to only allow onside kicks in the fourth quarter by the trailing team after signaling they would be attempting it to the refs. The rules for an onside kick outside of that have not changed.


The Cincinnati Bengals are only credited with players attempting 17 returns all season. The play had become a total afterthought. The play was easily one of the leading causes of concussions, and the NFL saw it as easier to disincentive returning kickoffs altogether rather than trying to make the play safer while still capturing the excitement that once surrounded it. This rule does exactly that.

You should expect to see almost every kick returned now, and teams really consider keeping a kickoff return specialist on the roster way more. The rules around the landing zone do create a bit of creativity from the kicker’s perspective, as the ideal scenario is for the ball to roll into the end zone (so the offense starts only at the 20) or have the kickoff being more unmanageable in a squib kick fashion (the kicker line drives the ball short and has the bounce unpredictably). Although a traditional squib kick won’t work, boot the ball with plenty of hang time that is often easier for returners to field cleanly as the coverage team can’t move until the ball is caught or lands on the ground.

Special teams coach Darrin Simmons has to be giddy with this change as he was a big detractor of recent changes that helped kill the play. Simmons recently talked about how the NFL needed to find a way to compromise with the safety of the players kept in mind but to preserve the excitement of the play itself.

Kicker Evan McPherson becomes even more of a weapon with his prowess for being able to do some impressive feats of ball placement.

What do you think of the rule change, and who are you most excited to see potentially returning kicks?

Originally posted on Cincy Jungle – All Posts