NFL hybrid kickoff proposal, explained: How new XFL-inspired rule change would work if approved

The NFL has long sought ways to make its kickoffs safer and reduce high-impact collisions.

The league’s coaches and competition committee may have found one on which almost everyone can agree.

The NFL is considering adopting a kickoff style similar to the one used in the XFL during its 2020 and 2023 seasons. This would require sweeping changes to the NFL’s current kickoff format and make the play look much different than it has in past seasons.

NFL owners still have to vote on whether the new kickoff rules will be implemented in 2024. And even if they are, it would only be on a year-long trial basis.

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Here’s what to know about how the NFL’s new kickoff rules would work if approved by the league’s assembly of owners.

Proposed NFL kickoff rules, explained

Alignment

The NFL’s hybrid kickoff rules would noticeably change the alignment of players on the field. It would create more rigid zones on the field that players must occupy to reduce high-impact collisions and add more excitement to the return game.

The basics of the play are the same. Teams would still kick off from their own 35-yard lines.

The major difference is that the 10 non-kickers on the unit would line up at the opponent’s 40-yard line. They will line up across from members of the receiving team, who will have to place at least seven of its players in a five-yard area between its own 30- and 35-yard lines known as the “set up zone.”

The receiving team is also limited to playing a maximum of two returners in the “landing zone,” the area between the team’s goal line and the 20-yard line.

Those rules give the receiving team the flexibility to place up to three players between the 20- and 30-yard lines if they so desire, but the general alignment would look something like the graphic below, per NFL Network’s Judy Battista.

Movement

The NFL’s new kickoff rule would significantly restrict movement for the players aside from the return men.

Returners are allowed to move freely before or during the kickoff. This gives them the freedom to catch the ball in the landing zone or field it outside of the landing zone (more on that later).

The 10 kicking players at the kickoff start line would not be allowed to move until either the ball hits the ground or a returner catches it in the air. The same restrictions apply to any receiving team players in the set up zone.

Kickers also have restricted movement on the play. They can’t go beyond the 50-yard line until their kick is either fielded or hits the ground in the landing zone or end zone.

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How penalties impact kickoff positioning

Penalties will only impact the placement of the kicker on kickoffs. The spot of the kick can move due to penalties on the point after try, but the kickoff start line will remain the opponent’s 40-yard line and the set up zone between the 30- and 35-yard line.

That lack of flexibility will make any infractions on the kicking team especially penal, as the kicker will still have to get the ball to the landing zone at the 20-yard line to avoid giving the opposing team great field position.

Kickoff scenarios and landing zone, explained

The landing zone earns its name for a key reason. The kicker must have the ball land or be caught in that area (between the receiving team’s goal line and 20-yard line) to avoid giving his opponent great field position.

Kicks that miss the landing zone — whether short, long, left or right — will all result in the receiving team getting the ball at their own 35-yard line or better. Comparatively, all kickoffs in the landing zone must be returned, so a well-placed kick could allow the kicking team to create a field position advantage with a timely stop.

Below is an outline of where the ball would end up in various situations where there isn’t a return, per NFL Network’s Michael Baca:

  • Kickoffs that hit the landing zone and then go into the end zone must be returned or downed by the receiving team. If downed, the receiving team would get the ball at its own 20-yard line.
  • Kickoffs that go into the end zone and stay inbounds that are downed would give the receiving team the ball at their own 35-yard line. Kickoffs that go out of the back of the end zone (in the air or bounces) would also be a touchback at the receiving team’s 35-yard line.
  • Kickoffs short of the landing zone would be treated like a kickoff out of bounds and the receiving team would get the ball at its own 40-yard line.

The competition committee amended the proposal so that kickoffs that go into the end zone on the fly would come out to the 30-yard line rather than the 35-yard line, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. That still would be five yards more than the current touchback rule.

Onside kicks

Onside kicks will still be allowed under the NFL’s new kickoff rules, but only in the fourth quarter for trailing teams.

The trailing team would have the right to declare to the official that they want to attempt an onside kick. After that, “current onside kickoff rules would apply,” as outlined by the NFL.

The NFL didn’t immediately clarify from where the onside kick would be attempted. The league noted that if an onside kick goes beyond the setup zone untouched, the kicking team would be penalized and the return team would start the drive at the “A20-yard line.”

The XFL allowed teams to attempt a fourth-and-15 play from their own 25-yard line in lieu of an onside kick, so the NFL is adapting this part of the rule to better suit its game.

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What potential NFL kickoff change could look like

All told, the NFL kickoff will look something like this, as displayed by Fred Brown of the San Antonio Brahmas.

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The NFL’s kickoff setup zone is five yards back from the XFL’s, as is their kickoff point, but generally, this is what fans can expect to see if the rule change passes.

How potential NFL kickoff rule changes impact the game

The NFL’s hybrid kickoff rules would significantly impact how special teams is played. Most notably, the system would eliminate some high-speed collisions that appear most frequently on kickoff plays. That would be a positive for player safety.

The new rules would also create more excitement on kickoffs, as they force returners to field balls inside the 20-yard line while also encouraging kickers not to blast the ball out of the end zone.

Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel estimates that return rate on kickoffs will be about 55 to 60 percent, per The Washington Post’s Mark Maske. Comparatively, the NFL saw a 77 percent touchback rate in 2023, the highest since it moved the kickoff to the 35-yard line in 2011, per ESPN’s Mike Clay.

The potential rule change and implementation of the landing zone would place a premium on accuracy and not just power, which has largely dominated NFL kickoffs since 2011. That could create a new path to the NFL for accurate kickers, punters or kickoff specialists.

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