NFL’s New kickoff rule for 2024, explained

The NFL is making kickoffs great again.

Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens / Ryan Kang/GettyImages

You thought that banning the hip-drop tackle would be the biggest rule change this year, didn’t you? Not so fast my friend. The NFL owners voted 29-4 to change the kickoff, and this change is huge.

In recent history, every kickoff rule change we’ve seen has felt like the NFL was trying to get rid of kick returns to both help with player safety and to make a play so boring and unwatchable that we had a few (but valuable) extra seconds to go to the bathroom before a drive started. The change this year is to make the kickoff a real play again and to move away from a kickoff style that resulted in just a 21.7% return rate in 2023.

NFL kickoff rule change, explained: League using variation of XFL rules

The general idea is pretty straightforward: Kickers have to land the ball in between the 20-yard line and the end zone, and the ball can’t be fair caught. 

This means if the ball lands in the “landing zone,” the ball has to be returned unless it bounces into the end zone. If the ball bounces in the end zone, the receiving team gets the ball at their own 20-yard line. If the ball is kicked short of the 20-yard line the return team gets the ball on their own 40-yard line. If the ball goes into the end zone, the return team can return the ball or they can down it and get the ball on the 30-yard line.

To recap, the four options are: return the ball, get the ball on your own 20 if the kick bounces into the end zone, get the ball on your own 30 if the kick goes too far, or get the ball on your own 40 if the kick goes too short. There is still a penalty for kicking the ball out of bounds and the return team gets the ball at their own 40. 

The weirdest part of this whole thing is how it’s going to look. The kicker is still going to be kicking off from the 35-yard line, but the rest of the kicking team is going to be lined up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line. Seeing a kicking team lined up 25 yards away from the ball (30 yards away from where the kicker is lining up) takes some getting used to. 

The return team has more leniency than the kicking team. They can have up to two players in the landing zone to return the ball and the other players have to line up in the “setup zone”. The setup zone is between the 30 and 35-yard lines. This means, at a minimum, players from either team will be lined up just 5 yards from each other, thus the lower collision speed and hopefully fewer concussions and the like.

Again, to recap: The kicker is on his own 35. The rest of the kicking team is on the return team’s 40. The return team is between their own 35 and 30-yard lines. The returner(s) are somewhere between their 20-yard line and the end zone.

“Okay, this all makes incredible sense. You’re so good at explaining things,” is what you’re thinking right now, “But what about when can the players move?”

Thanks for asking. The only people who can move before the ball is caught are the kicker and the return guy(s). Everyone else has to stay still until the ball is caught. It’s pretty straightforward. Is the strategy going to be for return teams to just have nine players in the setup zone for max protection or is it going to be having two returners so one can be a personal protector of sorts? Time will tell and we’ll certainly find out. 

“But what about onside kicks? I really enjoy seeing teams try those and ultimately fail.” This is obviously your next question and it’s valid. Everyone loves an onside kick, and they’re still going to be there, but teams are only allowed to do them in the fourth quarter and they have to declare that they’re going for an onside kick. That unfortunately means surprise onside kicks are dead and gone. Let’s pay homage to the greats.

RIP, sweet princes. 

One real downside to this kickoff style is dead ball penalties before the kick. Let’s say the Eagles just scored against the Commanders. Jake Elliott kicks the extra point, but someone on the Commanders starts a fight after the play, resulting in a 15-yard penalty that would be enforced on the kickoff. Normally, that would be beneficial for the kicking team on the kickoff. 

With these new rules, the kicker gets to move up 15 yards, but the landing zone stays the same, meaning that the 15-yard penalty was ultimately pointless. That’s just something to keep an eye on.

On the flip side of that, safeties have potentially become even more lethal. The NFL’s official rulebook still says that a safety would result in a free kick from the kicking team’s 20-yard line. If that’s the case, the punt would need to travel at least 60 yards to land in the landing zone. That would have to be an absolute hammer of a kick or else it would result in the return team getting the ball on their own 40.

That’s pretty much it. The big thing here is that this isn’t necessarily a new idea. The XFL used a very close iteration of this kickoff style and if you’re interested in seeing it in live action, the UFL (formerly known as the XFL) season starts this weekend, March 30th. Check that out if you have a hankering to do so. 

And hey, if this whole new kickoff thing goes up in smoke and literally everyone hates it, it’s only on a one-year trial. The NFL has the opportunity to go back to the fair catch-a-thon that the kickoff has become over the last half a decade. 

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