NFL’s kickoff fair-catch rule change isn’t a surefire score

USA Today

May 23, 2023

For every action, there’s a reaction. That theme is clearly attached to the new, college-like rule that NFL owners adopted on Tuesday that allows for a fair catch on kickoffs.
If you’ve followed the patterns in recent years – after CTE became part of the football lexicon and since the NFL was hammered a billion ways in the class-action lawsuit that alleged negligence by the league in dealing with concussion risks – it is hardly a surprise that it has come to this.
In lieu of completely removing kickoffs from the game, it’s another rule in the name of safety.
Kickoffs, after all, are the type of play that results in the highest rate of concussions. And the numbers, according to league data, have trended upward the past two years.
“We can’t stand by and do nothing,” said Jeff Miller, whose domain as an NFL executive vice president includes oversight of health and safety initiatives.
Miller, mindful of legal context, was brutally honest in expressing the motivation for the new rule – adopted for a one-year trial – that will set up the receiving team at the 25-yard line following a fair catch on a kickoff.
Last season, there were 20 concussions league-wide suffered during kickoffs, according to the NFL. Earlier this year, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president for game operations, said that 10 of the concussions occurred as players made tackles, and the other 10 came while making blocks. So, as you might expect with high-speed collisions, the fallout happens both ways.
With the new rule, Miller maintained that the league’s modeling projects that the concussion rate on kickoffs will drop 15%. He also said that the number of kickoffs returned is projected to drop from 38% to 31%.
So, call the new rule a noble cause. But the cause may not produce the desired effect.
Beware of unintended consequences that could add to injury risks. As sure as the measure was passed by team owners, you can believe there are kickers and special teams coaches across the league – who are largely opposed to the rule change – working to create an advantage that might offset safety initiatives.
And with that, an invitation for more of the chaos on kickoff returns that the rules-makers want to decrease.
The increased rate of concussions on kickoffs could be traced, at least in part, to kickers floating the football in the air to allow coverers more time to attack returners. Theoretically, the new rule would reduce the high-speed collisions in those circumstances…but perhaps not if the fair-catch isn’t called early in the kickoff. It’s also apparent that the skill level of kickers and the speed of coverers is much more advanced on the pro level than in the college game. So, the art of kickoff coverage may include the task of trying to harass returners to mishandle a kick they are trying to fair-catch.
There’s also the chance of more squib kicks, which lends to more high-speed collisions and chaos. Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s competition committee, pointed to a decrease in squib kicks on the college level – 2.9% of kicks were squibbed before the fair catch rule was implemented on the college level in 2018, 1.8% afterward – as an expectation of what could happen on the NFL level.
McKay, the Atlanta Falcons president, downplayed the sentiment from coaches who despise the rule.
“Change always means you have to look at things differently,” McKay said. “I get that. But in our case, we’re going to be driven by the health and safety data. And that’s what’s going to inform us as far as making rules proposals.”
Still, coaches have suggested other measures that might have better promoted safety relative to the fair-catch rule. Among them:
• Lowering the kicking tee, which would decrease the trajectory on kickoffs.
• Moving the spot of the kickoff back to the 30-yard line, as was the case for 20 years before it was moved to the 35-yard line in 2010.   
McKay knows that this hardly the finish line when it comes to kickoffs. It will help to have an open mind, which might involve embracing some of the suggestions from coaches.
In the meantime, the one-year trial could underscore more patterns and ignite more debate.
Are we headed to a game without kickoffs? In recent years, that question has grown in significance. As it stands now, the kickoff remains, and McKay – speaking for himself and not his committee – wants it to stay that way. That could mean borrowing from the spring leagues, the XFL or USFL, to adopt tweaks such as positioning the kickoff and return teams closer, and further downfield, to lessen collisions after the ball is kicked off.
“There’s something to that,” McKay said. “We’ve got to understand what the implications are. But If we can make a more competitive play out of a play that’s becoming more ceremonial, we should always do that.”
The bottom-line objective, McKay contended, is this: “You don’t want this play out of the game.”
Now just make it safer.

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