NFL approves 'radical' kickoff rule change: Here's what to know

ORLANDO, Fla. — The NFL kickoff is getting a makeover.

As the league sought to preserve a key phase of the game while decreasing the injury risk that high-speed collisions with distance-boosted acceleration create, a proposal for a new configuration passed in a Tuesday morning vote.

Key changes to NFL kickoffs

  • The kicking team will still kick from the 35-yard line, but players on the kicking team will line up at the opponent's 40. Those players cannot move, and the kicker himself cannot cross the 50, until the ball hits the ground or a receiving player in the “landing zone” (from the goal line to the 20) or end zone

  • The receiving team must have a minimum of nine players lined up in the “setup zone” (between the 30- and 35-yard lines) with a maximum of two returners lined up in the landing zone

  • Any kick that hits the landing zone must be returned, while any kick that bounces into the end zone from the landing zone must either be returned or downed by the receiving team for a touchback to the 20-yard line

  • Any kick short of the landing zone gives possession to the receiving team at its own 40; any kick that hits the end zone and is downed is a touchback to the 30; and any kick that goes out of the back of the end zone is also a touchback to the 30

  • There are no more fair catches

  • There are no onside kicks until the fourth quarter begins and a team is trailing, and current onside kick rules would apply

  • Kickoffs after safeties will be from the 20, and the kicker will have the option to use a tee; setup and landing zones will not change

  • Penalties that carry over to kickoffs would only impact the spot of the kick, not the setup or landing zones and not where players line up

The change was initially confirmed by a source to Yahoo Sports. The proposal will impact where teams line up in hopes to reverse the trend of what the league felt was becoming a ceremonial play.

“The play will feel different and radical because it doesn’t look like the typical formations we’ve had before,” competition committee chairman Rich McKay said on a recent conference call. “But this play has been used and we’ve seen it in the XFL for two years.”

NFL kickoffs are about to undergo a drastic facelift. (Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images)
NFL kickoffs are about to undergo a drastic facelift. (Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images)

How the kickoff changes came about

Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel and his New Orleans Saints counterpart Anthony Rizzo spearheaded the change, gathering more than 50 special teams coaches at the scouting combine for further discussion. The hybrid kickoff will move most members of the kicking and returning team closer to each other on short kicks. Touchbacks will also be placed closer in, as a hope of encouraging returns. Touchbacks increased steadily in recent years, up from 416 in 2010 to 1,970 in 2023, per league data. Return yards, inversely, dropped from 45,000 to 13,000 in that stretch.

“They truly relooked at the formation, relooked at the start line, put them at the 40 and the 35, not the 35 and the 30,” McKay said. “Have two players back. Let two returners go. Change the rules on when the ball enters. All the things that I think are important in making this play better.”

McKay said he expects the kickoff alteration will prompt a three- to five-yard average advance in field position and thus, in concert, a bump in scoring.

As of late Monday, league sources weren’t sure whether the vote would pass. Nineteen teams had approved the proposal in a mock vote on Monday, five fewer than the necessary two-thirds quorum. Ultimately, the vote passed 29-3, a person with knowledge of the count confirmed to Yahoo Sports.

League executives wondered if the rule change would need tabling to May. But coaches didn’t want to enter the draft with such ambiguity on rule changes, that they were filling out a roster without fully understanding what that roster would be asked to do. A returner’s value will “skyrocket” this season, Fassel said, as his touches increase.

The clarity is now here even if an adjustment period no doubt awaits.

“We don't want to lose the foot from the game, but I also think we don't want to lose special teams,” McKay said. “We like the formation because we believe that we have to reduce the space and speed that this play was historically. This was a great look and a ceremonial play when people ran down there, but the space and speed created an injury factor that (made) it time for us to change that.

“Our coaches are really good at scheming things up and we will definitely see some things that will create some excitement this year.”