EAGAN, Minn. -- NFL owners took what might be their final step Tuesday toward decreasing injuries on kickoffs before considering a more dramatic set of changes, approving a rule that will incentivize fair catches on balls fielded outside of the end zone.
This season, a fair catch on a kickoff will be placed at the 25-yard line regardless of where it is fielded. The proposal is designed to counteract a recent increase in "pop-up" kickoffs that some teams use to pin the returning team deep in their own territory.
Concussion rates on kickoffs have surged over the past two seasons, to nearly twice as high as the average offensive or defensive play, despite a series of previous tweaks to its format that have resulted in touchbacks on roughly 60% of kickoffs on an annual basis. According to Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL's competition committee, most of that surge can be traced to an increase in returns caused by pop-up kicks.
"The data is very clear about the higher rate of injury on that play," commissioner Roger Goodell said. "We've been talking about it for several years. We have not made a lot of progress on this play. This was a step that we think was appropriate to address that. But we have a lot more work to be done about how we continue to evolve going forward. Can we continue to keep this play in an exciting way but more importantly a safe way?"
Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, said the league estimates returns will drop from 38% to 31% as a result of the fair catch incentive. In exchange, the hope is that concussions on kickoffs drop by 15%.
"We can't stand by and do nothing," Miller said. "While these changes are going to affect the kickoff rate modestly, they will decrease the concussion rate. Sitting still and continuing to do nothing was unacceptable. That's where the membership came down on this."
The average return on kicks fielded outside of the end zone last season went to the 24.3-yard line, McKay said, so the fair catch will give teams an advantage of only 0.7 yards on average. But after years of tweaks designed to reduce the return rate, McKay suggested the play is due for a larger modification in the near future if it is going to remain part of the game.
"We want to keep it in the game," McKay said. "I don't know that we know we can keep it in the game."
The league has been closely monitoring the XFL kickoff format, which aligns most of the kicking and return teams downfield and with only 5 yards in between. None of them can move until the returner has fielded the ball, and over the XFL's 2020 and 2023 seasons, virtually all of the kickoffs have been returned in what amounts to a far less violent environment.
"My first watch of it as a pure fan was, 'Wow, I'm not all that jacked up about this,'" McKay said. "I would say I've watched a lot of it now and I see the benefits, because you are clearly creating much more of an offense/defense play. By eliminating some of that space and speed, you're definitely making it safer."
The tweak to the fair catch spot is in effect for one season only, forcing owners to resume the conversation in 2024.