From the sports’ inception and its published Laws of the Game (1863) by Ebenezer Cobb Morley, the play has occurred before each and every match over the past 155 years. To some, this play has become formality, while others cherish it as the greatest play in their franchise’s history.
There has been a litany of changes to the play over the years, and in the 2018 offseason, the Competition Committee adopted seven new rule changes, which are set to be implemented this evening when the Ravens play the Bears in the Hall of Fame Game.
Following today’s vote at the @NFL Spring League Meetings, here’s everything you need to know about the new kickoff rules for the upcoming 2018 season. The rule will be reevaluated next offseason. pic.twitter.com/YubLyMBR4g— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) May 22, 2018
I asked Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg about the new rules and his thoughts on the adjustments.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Rosburg said. “I’m excited with what’s about to happen. I got to compliment all the people involved in getting this to this point from the top down. There’s been a lot of people involved in this whole discussion. I’m excited to see the result of all that work.”
Prior changes, and their results, are the reason many have already labeled this spring’s alterations as another step towards entirely eliminating the kickoff. The last time the play was altered, returns dropped 42 percent and touchdowns decreased by over 50 percent. More tinkering seems to further dilute the product, but Jerry refutes this notion.
“I think that we took this step to save the kickoff,” Rosburg said. “We did it in a positive way that we’re not trying to slowly transition to elimination; we’re trying to raise this play up to where we keep it.”
The new rules will literally kickoff today as the Ravens and Bears face one another in the Hall of Fame Game, and Rosburg made it clear the play will be enhanced.
“It’s a great play,” he began. “I mean, it’s an exciting play. You don’t have to go to the pub room and get a drink, you can stay there and watch the kickoff.”
But how did the NFL get here? The kickoff has been part of the sport since its inception. Elimination of the play has the potential to drastically alter the sport. How many fourth quarter comebacks involve the onside kick? The return? One of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history involves the kickoff.
The History of the Kickoff
From the previously mentioned Laws of the Game, the kickoff is clearly a part of the contest, being mentioned in the second rule:
2. The winner of the toss shall have the choice of goals. The game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground by the side losing the toss, the other side shall not approach within 10 yards of the ball until it is kicked off.
The play remained unchanged for over a century. It was not until 1974 that the introductory play received its first modification.
“In 1974, owners approved the Competition Committee’s recommendation to move the kick from the 40-yard line to the 35-yard line.” — operations.nfl.com
This change to the kickoff was intended to make the play more exciting and valuable. Rather than touchbacks, the play could provide entertainment and unique opportunities. The decision and implementation of the rule change worked, spiking kickoff returns from 75 to 92 percent.
20 years later, in 1994, the competition committee once again adjusted for the skill level of professional kickers, moving the kick back to the 30-yard line; another five-yard increase.
“That boosted the return rate to 88 percent in the 1994 season from 68 percent the previous year.” — operations.nfl.com
With higher kick return percentages also came greater amounts of injuries on the play. The culprit, the committee believed, was wedge blocks.
Wedge blocks are when two or more blockers link together to block as a unit. To reduce the risk for the players, the committee changed multiple rules, most notably three-men or greater wedge blocks in 2009.
This was viewed as a big change for the NFL. Former Buffalo Bills special teams coach Bobby April believed the elimination of the wedge was critical. “The wedge is like the offensive line,” April said to Vic Curruci. “For us, we have to reduce that line by 33 percent. What would happen if you reduced the offensive line in the running game by 33 percent?”
After the big slew of changes in 2009, the NFL adopted two more substantial changes to the play in 2011.
- Kickoff returns to the 35-yard line to increase touchbacks.
- Kicking team must line-up within five yards, eliminating the running start of greater distances.
These rule changes turned the kickoff into the dead puck era of the play.
Comparing the seven years after the rule changes to the seven seasons prior, the numbers show a drastic shift.
Returns (2004-2010): 14,553
Returns (2011-2017): 8,420
Kick return touchdowns (2004-2010): 117
Kick return touchdowns (2011-2017): 56
*Stats compiled from pro-football-reference.com
As if the play was not already a dying breed, the NFL brought out the dead-horse stick and beat down the kickoff with the 25-yard touchback in 2016.
But now, today, we see the re-birth of the play.
“I think we’re going to have an increase in the number of kickoff returns, more exciting plays and, the primary goal, reduce the risk of the players involved,” Rosburg said. “Then, as I’ve said before, then we’ve hit the sweet spot.”