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NFL approves controversial new fair catch rule, further disincentivizing kickoff returns

Moving forward, fair catches inside a team’s own 25-yard line will automatically be brought out to the 25.

New England Patriots v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The NFL has taken another step toward making kickoff returns less attractive for teams. On Tuesday, the league’s ownership voted to approve a new fair catch rule that will likely disincentivize teams from running back kicks.

Playing Rule Proposal 16A, which was submitted by the NFL competition committee and unanimously opposed by special teams coordinators, effectively increases the touchback zone on kickoffs. As stated in the proposal, the new rule will do the following:

Effect: For one year only, puts the ball in play at the receiving team’s 25-yard line if there is a fair catch on a free kick (kickoff and safety kick) behind the receiving team’s 25-yard line.

What this basically means is that every fair catch inside a receiving team’s 25-yard line will automatically move the offense’s starting field position up to the 25. Given that teams averaged only 22.8 yards per kickoff return in 2022 which, on average, led to teams starting their possessions at the 24.3-yard line, the safe assumption is that this will impact how many kickoffs are actually run back.

The reasoning behind this change, as stated in the proposal, is player safety. Concussion rates on kickoffs and punts are significantly higher than on set plays where the ball is snapped from center. Per NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller, modeling shows that the new rule would decrease the concussion rate by 15 percent.

Nonetheless, there was a broad pushback from special teams coaches and players alike — fearing another step toward eliminating kickoffs from the game altogether.

According to Miller, there indeed “may be more to come.” However, competition committee chairman Rich McKay tried to address those fears on Tuesday.

“We did this rule for one year only because we really do wan to get more long-term solution, and maybe that long-term solution includes having more returns in the game and just trying to make the play safer,” said McKay. “The play has its challenges because of space and speed, and we’ve just got to find ways to mitigate that and try to get the play back in the game.

“No one wants to get rid of special teams. Special teams is a critical part of our game. And yet, because of health and safety, we’ve had to modify many times over the years. We now need to find a way to try to revolutionize the rule, if we can, in a way to get the kick return back in the game.”

From a New England Patriots perspective, this new rule comes after a year that saw the team give up a league-high three kickoff return touchdowns. That being said, the team has made significant investments to improve in the game’s third phase in 2023: Matthew Slater was retained for another year, fellow coverage ace Chris Board signed in free agency, and kicker Chad Ryland and punter Bryce Baringer selected in the draft.

Kick coverage will still play a role with returners having to decide whether or not to call for a fair catch in the first place. Its impact projects to be a smaller one, however, with the NFL’s modeling predicting a drop in return rate from 38 to 31 percent.