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The 2023 NFL kickoff rule change: An in-depth explanation with a side of opinion

Does this rule mean anything significant for the future of special teams in the NFL?

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

If you haven’t heard yet, the NFL owners approved a change to the kickoff rules for the 2023 NFL season. This particular change has generated some buzz, mostly skewed toward the negative. Let’s take a second to explain the rule, and then I’m going to give a heavy dose of opinion for those who care enough to see it.

The Rule

You can read the NFL’s full release on the change here, but the gist is pretty simple. To help explain it, I created a graphic using the Buffalo Bills’ home field.

(I know I went overboard with my graphics on this, no need to thank me.)

The red line is one fans of the game are likely already familiar with. The 25-yard line is where the ball is placed on a touchback (dead ball in the end zone). The rule in essence expands the idea of a touchback, and at this point I’ll direct you to the area highlighted with those excellent blue squiggles.

If a player calls for a fair catch in this area of the field, the ball is then spotted at the 25 — the same spot as a touchback. It doesn’t matter if they call for it at the one, or the 24-yard line, it’ll come out to the 25.

How this will impact the game of course remains to be seen, which is likely why the rule is currently only approved for one season. If it’s terrible, things will go back to the way they were. The NFL’s prediction is that with the rule in place, 31% of kickoffs will be returned. This is a 7% decrease from the 2022 season. They also believe the concussion rate will drop 15%, which on the surface seems like a good return. Let’s get to that opinion.

My Opinion

You can see a good chunk of my thoughts and the stats I used to reach them with the latest Bills Mathia video found here. Let’s go a bit beyond that and run some hypothetical thought processes from special teams coordinators.

Kicking Team

This is pretty straightforward. The opposing team either has a dynamic threat returning the ball (Indianapolis Colts and Bills for example). Or they don’t (Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos). If you have a dynamic opponent, you can force the issue by kicking a touchback. You can’t guarantee they’ll call for a fair catch, so kicking it short isn’t a surefire bet. Or in other words, from the kicking team’s perspective — what exactly has changed? You have to prepare for the possibility that there’s a fair catch, but you also have to prepare for a return. So the change is nothing more than “If that dude waves for a fair catch, don’t blow him up.”

Return Team

If you watched my Bills Mathia video on the matter, I gave some stats that suggest kickoffs have very little fluctuation in starting field position in the first place. Put differently, what I’m getting at is that returning the ball is so similar to a touchback from a global perspective that it changes the game very little to increase the number of touchbacks. To show my work...

  • There were 2,641 kickoffs during the regular season last year
  • Of those, 1,612 or 61% were touchbacks
  • About 39% (from the numbers I could get) were returned
  • Of the returned kicks, 76% ended up within ten yards of a touchback (selected because it represents +/- one “first down” difference). That means 91% of all kickoffs led to teams starting between the 15 and 35-yard line
  • If you’re worried that’s too large of a range, about 46% of returned kicks ended between the 20 and 30-yard line. With this narrower range, that means 78% of all kickoffs were within five yards of the touchback line

Remember my rule of four? In the NFL, only a few teams truly separate in any given measure. My rule of thumb states the top four and bottom four are your elite and horrid, there’s another group of four on each side that are semi-significant. That leaves 16 teams that are considered average. Here’s my thought process for each grouping.

Elite and good teams (top 8) — If I have an elite or pretty good kick returner why am I asking them to make a fair catch? Look at the numbers above. They’re all but guaranteed to end up near a touchback kind of performance and there’s still a shot they’ll break one free. One thing I didn’t mention above is that while touchdowns are rare (just six all season), so are fumbles lost (only nine). It’s incredibly low-risk to bring the kick back.

Average teams (middle 16) — What to do if you’re merely average? Return the kick anyway. The league-average return was 22.8 yards. Kicks are mostly returned when they’re near the goal line or short of it. Let’s theorize with the “worst” team in the average grouping. The New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Pittsburth Steelers averaged 21.3 yards per return. If I take that out from the goal line, on average that means I’ve set my team back less than four yards from a touchback. If I like what I see as a returner, you take the shot. It’s almost certain you’ll be near the 25 anyway, so like above it’s an incredibly low risk.

Terrible and bad teams (bottom 8) — Four teams were below 20 yards per return, and four were between 20 and 21 yards per return. If I’m one of these teams, I might consider asking my returner to start calling touchbacks. Especially the bottom four. On average you could be looking at losing five yards every drive that starts with a kickoff.

Impact if I’m right

I started running the numbers but there’s too much guesswork for me to post my results. That said, my best guesses agree with the NFL for the most part. I don’t think there’s going to be a massive shift in how this shakes out. I do expect some teams to start leveraging the fair catch to default to the 25. I don’t expect a massive surge in teams doing this.

If the league sees this as a success, there may be long-term ramifications. If I’m a team that has made a conscious decision to call more fair catches, I’m personally tempted to just make it my default. The league is already at a point where the ball is around the 25 three-quarters of the time regardless. If I’m pushing that a bit higher for my team, just make it 100% and be done with it.

The rationale is simple. I can stop spending some of the time and energy dedicated to perfecting these plays and use that elsewhere. I can keep players based a bit more on their backup potential than their special teams potential. And when it comes time to play the game itself, those players will be better rested and less likely to be injured.

Put another way, I’ve slightly improved my starting field-position on average and I’ve increased the quality of play from the tail end of the roster.

Short term, I think the 2023 season will look very similar to the 2022 season in terms of kickoffs/kickoff returns. Long term, if the few teams that I think embrace the fair catch really do improve the depth of their roster for the other phases, other teams will copy it. Does this mean the end of the kickoff is nigh? It could be.

Am I worried? Me, personally? No. The end result of a kickoff was nearly a given before the rule change. Statistically, it’s one of the least-exciting plays due to its predictability. The league might be ready for this change.