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NFL team owners have approved a new rule that will bring kickoff returns back to the game, starting in 2024. The overhaul to special teams takes elements from the XFL kickoff rules and adapts them for NFL use. The rule will be implemented on a trial basis for one season and reviewed in 2025. Last season, there were nearly 2,000 touchbacks on kickoffs that could potentially become returns under the new rules.

For a standard kickoff under the new rule, the ball will be kicked from the 35-yard line with the 10 kick coverage players lined up at the opposing 40. The return team will have at least nine blockers in the “set up zone” between the 30- and 35-yard line. Only the kicker and two returners will be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or is touched by a returner inside the 20. Any kick that reaches the end zone in the air can be returned, or the receiving team can opt for a touchback and possession at the 30.

NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay stated that there was a sense of urgency to vote on this rule before the draft due to potential impacts on roster structure. The intention is to make kickoff plays more relevant and exciting for the game. Coaches like Rams coach Sean McVay believe the rule change is positive for the game, appreciating the efforts of special teams coordinators to keep the play relevant. However, some coaches like Ravens’ John Harbaugh question whether this drastic move is the right decision at this time.

Under the current rules, any touchback or fair catch in the field of play results in the receiving team getting the ball at their 25-yard line. With the new rules, teams will have the option to return kicks that reach the end zone in the air, adding an element of unpredictability and excitement to the game. The proposal required 24 out of 32 votes to pass, indicating broad support among team owners and coaches. Chiefs coach Andy Reid is in favor of the change, believing it will eliminate dead plays and bring newness and excitement to kickoffs.

The rule change is a significant shift in how kickoffs have been traditionally handled in the NFL, signaling a return to making them a more integral part of the game. By implementing elements of the XFL kickoff rules, the league aims to enhance the excitement and unpredictability of kickoff returns, potentially transforming the way teams approach this aspect of the game. With the new rule set to be in play for the 2024 season on a trial basis, the NFL will closely monitor its impact before deciding whether to renew it for the 2025 season.

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