This week the NFL adopted a new rule in regards to kickoffs. With kickoff plays having significantly higher occurrences of concussions, the NFL is attempting to reduce the number of returns in the name of player safety. While this is not their first attempt to do so, this is simply the latest rule to try to alleviate the perceived problem.
To sum up the rule, if the team receiving the kickoff performs a fair catch inside their own 25-yard line, the ball will be placed not at the spot of the fair catch but at the 25. So a fair catch at the 1-yard line gives the team the ball at the 25 just the same as if it were a touchback.
As I explained earlier this week, the reasoning behind this is to keep the kicking team from forcing the receiving team into a return. In recent years, NFL kickers have become more successful at getting a higher hang time on their kickoffs have them come in just short of the goal line, taking the touchback option off the table for the return team while allowing their own players more time to get down the field in coverage. By implementing this rule, the receiving team can have the touchback even if the ball does not reach the end zone simply by calling for a fair catch.
But if this rule is anything like the last change in regards to kickoffs, kicking teams will do all they can to find a way to attempt to turn the play into advantage.
After the NFL moved the kickoff line from the 35-yard line back to the 30-yard line in 1994, they did so to have more kick returns. This came in an era prior to the major concerns in regards to conditions. In 2011, the NFL moved the kickoff line back to the 35-yard line in order to make it easier for kicks to reach the end zone in an attempt to reduce the number of kick returns. At the same time, the NFL began limiting the running starts by the kicking team. While the number of touchbacks did increase, the rise in percentage of touchbacks leveled off in the past few seasons and started to slightly trend in the other direction as strategy came into play when teams began attempting high kicksoffs short of the goal line.
With this new rule, the question now becomes in what ways will kickoff teams look for an advantage now? They did it before, so they are bound to do it again.
One option which I believe could be possible is there will be an increase in the number of squib kicks occurring on kickoffs. A squib kick is when the kick is made low and often along the ground. This is often done when there’s not much time on the clock where the kicking team is not concerned about the best field position but simply not allowing a return. But with it being much easier for the return team to get the ball beyond the 25 yard line, perhaps a more strategic squib kick will begin to be implemented.
One thing NFL fans need to realize is that a player cannot fair catch a ball that has already hit the ground after it has been kicked. This is why during an onside kick the ball is kicked into the ground in an attempt to get a high bounce as the desired outcome. If the team simply tried to pop the ball straight in the air to go 10 yards down the field to give them a chance to recover, the receiving team could simply call a fair catch and they must be allowed to field the ball without any interference. But after the ball hits the ground when it is kicked, the option of a fair catch is off the table.
The task kickers will now be faced with if they are going to attempt to gain a field position advantage is how they can get the ball deep to the return man without allowing them to signal for a fair catch. A squib kick would do this, but would it allow the kickoff team enough time to get down the field in coverage in order to keep returns from reaching the 25-yard line? This is likely what teams will begin experimenting with to see if it will work.
While we may not see a huge amount of squib kicks in 2023, it doesn’t mean that kickers won’t begin working on them to eventually try to gain an advantage. The high and short kickoffs which have become more prevalent in the NFL and caused the rule change weren’t implemented right away as this was something kickers needed to perfect.
So based on this new rule, do you see a way that kickers will find yet another way to win the field advantage battle? Is a squib kick the answer? Is there another way to pin their opponent deep? Or has the NFL managed to all but take kickoff returns out of the game? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below