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NFL owners pass new hybrid kickoff rule at Annual League Meeting

The NFL is following through on its desire to jumpstart the kickoff.

Owners approved the hybrid kickoff rule on Tuesday during the Annual League Meeting, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported, per sources informed of the decision. The vote passed 29-3, NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay told reporters.

The move will dramatically alter the look and feel of the kickoff, a play that had become an afterthought as safety rules essentially wiped out incentives for a return.

The passed kickoff rule features new alignments for both the kicking and receiving units. A "landing zone," the area between the receiving team's goal line and its 20-yard line, would prompt action off the kickoff if the ball were to land in that sector.

Kickoffs will remain at the 35-yard line, but the remaining 10 players on the kicking unit will line up at the opposing team's 40-yard line. The receiving team lines up with at least seven players in the "set-up zone," a five-yard area between their own 35- and 30-yard lines, with a maximum of two returners can line up in the landing zone.

After the ball is kicked, the kicker cannot cross the 50-yard line and the 10 kicking team players cannot move until the ball hits the ground or a player in the landing zone or goes into the end zone. The receiving team's players in the set-up zone also cannot move until the kick has hit the ground or a player in the landing zone or the end zone. The returner(s) may move at any time before or during the kickoff.

Penalties on scoring plays also will not carry over and will be taken on the point after attempt. On any penalty that carries over to kickoffs, the set-up and landing zones will not change, nor will the alignment of the 10 kickoff team players and all the receiving team players -- only the kicker's positioning move.

Kickoff scenarios:

  • Kickoffs that hit the landing zone must be returned.
  • Kickoffs that hit the landing zone and then go into the end zone must be returned or downed by the receiving team. If downed, the receiving team would get the ball at its own 20-yard line.
  • Kickoffs that go into the end zone and stay inbounds that are downed would give the receiving team the ball at their own 30-yard line. Kickoffs that go out of the back of the end zone (in the air or bounces) would also be a touchback at the receiving team's 30-yard line.
  • Kickoffs short of the landing zone would be treated like a kickoff out of bounds, and the receiving team would get the ball at its own 40-yard line.

The legislation also will lead to a tweak in onside kicks, which can only occur in the fourth quarter and onward when a team trails. The kicking team must declare its intent to onside kick.

The new rule is in place only for 2024 and is subject to renewal in 2025. As the NFL did with the pass interference review rule a few years back, if things go awry or don't have the desired consequences, the league can go back to the drawing board.

"I think that we're still going to have to tinker with it," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday. "I think it's one of those things, when you get it in play, you look at things and we'll re-evaluate that as the season's going on. And if it's appropriate to make changes in the future, we will."

The new hybrid kickoff, which will also wipe out the spontaneous onside kick, will probably look a tad funky to traditionalists for the first few weeks, but the hope is that it revitalizes a dying play while also keeping injuries -- particularly head injuries -- to a minimum.

"I think it will be a big improvement," Goodell said, crediting special teams coaches for the proposal's adoption. "I think that it will bring the play back into a relevant play, an important play and an exciting play. I think we can do it where the injury rate hopefully will drop."

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