There will be a new NFL fair catch rule in 2023. Let’s break it down.
In May, the NFL owners approved a new fair catch rule that will be implemented on free kicks (kickoffs or safeties).
Under the new guidelines, the kickoff returner can signal for a fair catch on free kicks, and the offense’s possession will begin at the 25-yard line. The fair catch must be initiated behind the 25-yard line.
The rule is approved for only one year. So, the 2023 season will serve as an unofficial trial of the new rule.
The NFL fair catch rule is designed to protect player safety
The NFL’s competition committee cited player safety as the reason for the change. The committee’s chairman Rich McKay spoke to NFL Network’s Judy Battista about the new rule:
"“The kickoff play for us has been a play that has had a lot of changes for us over the years, all really driven by health and safety. The concussion rate on the play has gone up. It’s gone up because the ball is being returned more by kicks that are being hung inside the 5-yard line.”"
The NFL projects the change will lower the kickoff return rate by seven percent and the concussion rate by 15 percent.
Like most changes, the rule has not gone without criticism. Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton criticized the rule from a strategic standpoint. During a press conference, he pointed out that penalties on kickoffs could be significantly less impactful:
"“Let’s say there’s a foul on a scoring play, and you have it on the 50-yard line. You kick it in the air. They fair catch it. It’s at the 25. You don’t realize any of the penalty. I was kind of pushing for if that were the case, I would have thought that we would have put the ball on the 10 to realize the 15-yard personal foul, but that’s not the case.”"