Kevin SeifertESPN staff writer4 minutes of reading
EAGAN, Minn. — NFL owners took a final step Tuesday toward reducing injuries on kickoffs before considering more dramatic changes, approving a rule that encourages fair catches on punts outside the end zone.
This season, a fair catch will be placed on a kickoff at the 25-yard line, regardless of where the field is fielded. The proposal is designed to counter the recent rise of “pop-up” kickoffs, which some teams use to punt the returner deep in their own territory.
The rate of concussions on kickoffs has risen over the past two seasons, nearly twice that of the average offensive or defensive tackle, and despite previous changes to the format, it resulted in touchbacks on about 60% of kickoffs on an annual basis. According to Rich McKay, the NFL’s chairman of the competition committee, much of that surge can be traced to the increase in revenue from pop-up kicks.
“The data is very clear about the high injury on that play,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We’ve been talking about this for years. We haven’t made much progress on this play. We think it’s appropriate to resolve it. But there’s still a lot of work to be done on how we can continue to move forward. Can we continue this play in an exciting manner, but more importantly in a safe manner?” Can it be conducted?”
Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, said the league estimates a 38% to 31% drop in revenue as a result of fair catch incentives. Alternatively, the hope is a 15% reduction in concussions on kickoffs.
“We cannot stand idly by,” Miller said. “While these changes will modestly affect the kickoff rate, they will reduce the concussion rate. Sitting back and continuing to do nothing is unacceptable. That’s where membership has gone down.”
McKay said the average return on punts kicked out of the end zone last season went to the 24.3-yard line, so a fair catch would give teams an average advantage of only 0.7 yards. But after years of changes designed to reduce turnover, McKay suggested that if the sport is going to be part of the game, it’s due for a big change in the future.
“We want to keep it in the game,” McKay said. “I’m not sure we knew we could keep it in the game.”
The league is closely monitoring the XFL kickoff format, which aligns most kicking and return teams with only 5 yards on downs and between. None of them can move until the returner is fielding the ball, and in the XFL’s 2020 and 2023 seasons, nearly all kickoffs are returned in a much less violent environment.
“My first watch as a pure fan was, ‘Wow, I don’t care too much about this,'” McKay said. “Now that I’ve seen it a lot, I’d say I see the benefits. Because you create more of an offensive/defensive game. By eliminating that space and speed, you definitely make it safer.”
The changes to the fair catch spot will only be in effect for one season, forcing owners to restart the conversation in 2024.
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