NFL votes to significantly alter kickoff rules in name of safety and to revive returns

Get ready for NFL kickoffs to look a whole lot different next season.

In a 29-3 vote Tuesday, team owners voted in favor of a radical, one-year change to kickoffs in hopes of reviving one of the game’s most exciting plays — while making it safer.

The new alignment will put the coverage and return teams much closer together at the kick, curtailing those violent collisions when players have long runways before crashing into each other. Touchbacks have become the norm in recent years. Only 22% of kickoffs were returned last season.

“Whether you like it or don’t like it, you’re going to watch it,” New Orleans Saints special teams coach Darren Rizzi said after the hybrid kickoff rule was passed at the annual league meetings. “It’s not going to be like the Super Bowl where there’s 13 touchbacks and 12 of them kicked out of the end zone.

“Now it’s going to be must-see TV.”

Here’s how the hybrid kickoff works:

The kicker will remain at the 35-yard line, but the other 10 players of the coverage team will line up on the opponent’s 40, across from the members of the return team.

At least seven of those return-team members must line up in the five-yard area between the 30 and 35, called the “set-up zone.” That means the return team has the option of placing up to three players between its 20- and 30-yard lines.

A maximum of two returners can be positioned in the “landing zone,” located between the goal line and the 20.

If a kickoff lands in the landing zone but carries into the end zone where it’s downed, the receiving team gets the ball at its 20. If the ball sails into the end zone and is downed — or goes out the back of the end zone — the receiving team starts at the 35.

Kickoffs short of the landing zone are treated the same as out-of-bounds kickoffs, and they’re spotted at the 40.

Other than the kicker and the returner(s) lined up in the landing zone, no one can begin moving until the ball either hits the ground or is caught.

Gone are surprise onside kicks, although there were only two of those attempted last season and both failed.

A team can attempt a maximum of two onside kicks in a game, but those must come in the fourth quarter and only if that team is trailing. And officials must be informed before the play. The teams then will revert to the traditional alignment.

These hybrid kickoffs are new to the NFL but not new to football. The XFL has been using a similar alignment, and the NFL’s competition committee studied those kickoffs in devising its own version.

“I think the optics are definitely the most drastic we’ve seen,” said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee. “The thing that gives us all the comfort is we have the tape. We’ve seen it. We can show you the plays and you can see how it’s going to play out.”

There were 1,970 touchbacks in the NFL last season and 92 fair catches. So the rationale is, even if 50% of these hybrid kickoffs are returned, that means there will be at least 1,000 “must-see” plays added to games.

“We’re in the business of creating an entertaining product, putting a product on the field where you can be competitive in every moment,” McKay said. “And we’ve created a play that’s no longer competitive. Our job as a league, as a membership, is to try to find a way to make that play competitive. This was our best option.”

Dallas Cowboys special teams coach John Fassel said he spent two days in workouts last spring experimenting with hybrid kickoffs.

“The goal was to get the players’ input on how this feels, what it would look like, and then from a coaches’ perspective schematically, what might fit and what might not,” Fassel said. “The feedback from the players was fantastic.”

Both Rizzi and Fassel said that reviving kickoffs will add value to returners and special teamers — typically bottom-of-the-roster players — and noted the coincidence that these changes will be made in the same year legendary Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester is heading for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Said Rizzi: “This is a great day for the NFL.”

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