The NFL is Changing Kickoff Rules, Again

I imagine the kickoff might go away entirely in the near future, but in the meantime owners are giving temporary approval to new changes that are supposed to make the play safer. Concussions are five times more likely to happen on kickoffs than any other NFL play, according to data compiled by the league. 

The following rules will be in place for the 2018 season and will be reevaluated at the end of the year when a new batch of injury data comes out:

  • no more running starts for the kicking team
  • eight return team players must line up within 15 yards of the ball (called the “setup zone”)
  • no blocking inside the “setup zone” until the ball touches the ground or is caught
  • two-man wedge blocks are no longer allowed
  • kickoff team must have five men on each side of the ball and spread out at specific intervals (to prevent overloads and get free runners downfield)

If any of that sounds confusing, the league put together a graphic explaining everything:

Makes sense to me. They’re trying to reduce high intensity collisions and they don’t want crazy mofos launching themselves head-first into a wedge to blow up blockers.

Ex-Eagle Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Executive VP of Football Operations, says he thinks the new rules will result in MORE returns:

“This will encourage more kickoff returns and a more explosive play,” Vincent said.

So how could more returns result in fewer injuries? Vincent said it’s all about limiting the number of high-speed collisions right at the start of the play, which Vincent believes the new restrictions will reduce.

“What our data has said is most of those head injuries occurred up in that first 15 yards, which we call the no-blocking zone,” he said. “We believe it will reduce some of the unnecessary risk that we’ve seen in the past.”

Vincent said the kickoff should be a more integral part of football this season, saying, “We think it’s a better play today.”

I guess that makes sense? We’re still talking about freakish athletes who move with elite burst and agility, so even without the running start and the new blocking rules, I still feel like we’re going to see some hard hits if returners do try to bring the ball out. And the onside kick is going to look a lot different with teams no longer being able to get a running start or clump players in tight batches.

ESPN has more on the safety side of the rule changes:

Concussions on kickoffs actually dropped by about 20 percent from 2016 to 2017, but the league still scrambled to address the issue after the season. For that reason, it’s unclear how much further the concussion numbers must drop to ensure a second season under this rule.

If the numbers don’t improve to the league’s liking, more dramatic changes — including the elimination of kickoffs — would be on the table for 2019.

I imagine that’s where we might be headed. We’ve already moved the kickoff up five yards and brought touchbacks to the 25 yard line to make teams think twice about running the ball out of the end zone. But league data showed that there wasn’t a huge change to injury numbers and head coaches pointed out that touchbacks don’t necessarily change what’s happening elsewhere on the field.

Those ideas were described in a 2017 article at ProFootballTalk:

The NFL changed the rule on touchbacks last year in the hopes that there would be fewer injuries on kickoffs. The first year of data is in, and not much changed.

According to data released by the league today, concussions on kickoffs declined slightly, from 20 in 2015 to 17 in 2016. But hamstring injuries on kickoffs increased from 11 to 13, ACL tears increased from one to four, and MCL tears increased from three to five.

……

Patriots coach Bill Belichick pointed out during the season that concussions happen even on touchbacks, as players still block because they don’t know whether their returner is taking the ball out of the end zone or not. So even if touchbacks increased significantly, that wouldn’t necessarily mean injuries on kickoffs would decrease significantly.

But touchbacks only increased by about 2 percent in 2016. There was a lot of talk about that rule, but in the end it made very little difference.

That last part there, what Belichick mentions, should be solved with the new blocking limitations.

I’m not sure if the NFL will get what it wants, but the new rules are interesting, to say the least.

For what it’s worth, the Eagles returned a league-low 18 kicks last year, down from 35 in 2016, 27 in 2015, and 32 in 2014. That’s obviously due, in large part, to having a phenomenal defense and not allowing a ton of points. On the other side of that, Jake Elliott hit 84 kickoffs last year for 42 touchbacks, 40 returns. One went out of bounds and one was an onside kick, so more than 50% of his kicks went into the endzone.

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