It has been more than a decade since the NFL began reworking its kickoff in a quest to reduce concussions. The formula has been simple -- incentivize teams to avoid returns -- but only moderately effective. Now the league is considering an existential question as it implements its latest, and perhaps final, tweak of that effort:
Will 2023 be the final year of the kickoff as we know it?
League officials are openly referring to their latest rule change, one that encourages returners to fair catch balls that are kicked inside the 25-yard line, as a short-term patch for a spike in concussions during the 2022 season. According to multiple sources, commissioner Roger Goodell and executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent were part of a recent meeting with XFL officials to discuss its version of the kickoff, among other rule innovations, which has produced lower injury rates as well as a return rate of more than 90% in its two seasons. In the XFL version, all players but the kicker and returner line up 5 yards from each to reduce high-speed collisions.
"I remain optimistic that we can find creative solutions, whether it's a version of the XFL or a reboot of this play," Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL competition committee, told ESPN. "We can find variations that continue to evolve this play and keep this play in the game, but I think we have to be open to the idea that the answer can't be, 'Let's just do it the way we've done it.' That just isn't a good answer when the data says otherwise."
Such aggressive talk is rare for the slow-changing NFL, but McKay and others are beginning to acknowledge that simply limiting returns has run its course. That approach dropped the return rate to as low as 36% in 2020, but an increase in teams using "pop-up" kicks short of the goal line added more returns, and more concussions, over the past two seasons.
A series of more fundamental adjustments in 2018, including the elimination of double-team blocks and a prohibition on a running start for cover men, had an "incremental" impact, McKay said. But the nature of high-speed collisions on kickoffs has kept the ratio of concussions per return relatively constant. Last season, players remained more than three times as likely to suffer a concussion on a kickoff compared to a regular offensive or defensive play.
NFL modeling estimates concussions associated with kickoffs will drop by 15% in 2023 with the new fair catch rule, but only because it is projected to reduce returns by 7%. Further diminishing the frequency of kickoff returns no longer appeals to the league, in part because the XFL has shown there are other viable options.
"While we figure this out, and we need to figure it out, this seems like something we can do," NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said on the "Pat McAfee Show" recently. "I think it's a stopgap. I think it's an interim measure while hopefully we can figure out a better solution."
Special teams coaches and players have largely opposed the effort to reduce returns over the years, and the fair catch rule -- which spots the ball at the 25-yard line even if it is fielded inside of that mark -- is no exception. As the touchback rate has risen from 9.2% in 2009 to nearly 60% in 2022, kickoffs have become far less relevant to the outcome of games -- all while making only a small impact on injuries.
In this case, they question if enough collisions would be averted on a fair catch to make a difference in injury numbers.
"There's going to be contact on every single kickoff unless the ball is a touchback," New England Patriots special teams coordinator Cameron Achord said. "If that ball is coming down in the field of play, there's going to be contact on that play. It's not like we're getting rid of contact."
The likeliest outcome, said Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Matt Daniels, is that teams will stop using shorter "pop-up" kicks.
"It just doesn't make sense to do something like that," Daniels said. "If it does happen, you should immediately go ahead and fair catch that thing."
Even so, teams will continue to look for ways to pin opponents with field position inside the 25-yard line. Some coaches said they expect an increase in "squib" kicks that bounce downfield rather than ascend in the air. But several kickers noted that squibs are not as routine as they look and could lead to unintended consequences.
"That's risky," Vikings kicker Greg Joseph said. "At that point there's so many moving pieces. The ball can obviously bounce in different ways and there are people trying to stop the ball and get the ball for field position. There's more moving pieces and more of the unknown."
Said the Patriots' Nick Folk: "When you're kicking this ball that is this oblong shape, you just don't know. It's a tough kick to perfect. You're at the mercy of the football."
McKay said the NFL's research showed squib kicks didn't increase at the college level following the implementation of its own fair catch rule in 2018. Even if they do proliferate, he added: "We're comfortable that would be a better place than we're currently in."
That dynamic will be tough to judge during the preseason, when coaches are unconcerned about field position and instead prioritize every opportunity to evaluate their return and coverage teams. In fact, there was not a single fair catch on a kickoff in the first 17 games of the 2023 preseason.
But at this point, even McKay knows that the toolbox for reducing injuries via returns is nearly -- if not entirely -- empty.
"It doesn't feel like we have a lot of other options there," McKay said. Reducing concussions via fewer returns is an "OK result for this year," McKay said. But the method is "not preferred," he added. "None of that is preferred."
The NFL's arrival at this crossroad has coincided with the emergence of a potentially viable option, one that would counter years of concerns that the ultimate outcome would be to eliminate the kickoff entirely.
The XFL's low-impact kickoff is largely the brainchild of Sam Schwartzstein, who played college football at Stanford from 2008 to 2012 and was one of the XFL's first hires when it returned for the 2020 season. Tasked by then-owner Vince McMahon to "reimagine" football, Schwartzstein zeroed in on the kickoff as fertile ground.
"We knew our fans wanted players to stay safe," he said, " but they also wanted to keep the foot in the game. And that's what we wanted, too. It's just too much a part of the game. The word 'kickoff' is just part of the American vernacular. We 'kick off' meetings, we 'kick off' everything. We had to have it in there somehow."
The traditional football kickoff, Schwartzstein said, has a "speed and space" problem. Players run halfway down the field (or further) at top speed before colliding into violent hits, and there was no fundamental way around it under conventional formations.
But at the moment the returner catches the ball, Schwartzstein found, the other players on the field are almost always in the same spot: between the receiving team's 30- and 35-yard lines, and between 3 to 7 yards apart. So why not start the play at that moment?
Through experimentation and tweaking over nearly two years leading up to the XFL's 2020 season, the league settled on an admittedly unusual formation in which 10 players from each team line up five 5 yards across from each other between the receiving team's 30- and 35-yard lines. The kicker stands alone at his 30, reducing the chances of the ball traveling into the end zone, while the returner lines up around the 20-yard line.
By rule, none of the 20 players lined up across from each other can move until the returner secures the ball or after three seconds pass when it hits the ground. A touchback is marked at the 35-yard line and a kick out of bounds, or short of the 20-yard line, is marked at the 45.
San Antonio takes the lead as Fred Brown takes the kickoff to the house for the first kickoff return touchdown of the season.
McKay admitted he was "not all that jacked up" about the formation the first time he saw it. The Vikings' Daniels called it "funky." But McKay has watched film of every single XFL kickoff from the 2020 and 2023 seasons, and both he and Daniels agreed that it solved the primary issues facing the NFL kickoff.
"I love how they do it," Daniels said. "It's a guaranteed play every single time. No touchbacks. And you're not getting those collisions from players running 30 or 40 yards down field. What's not to love about that? You're getting the enjoyment for fans who get to see an actual play. I always think it's anticlimactic when everyone in a stadium gets excited for an opening kickoff, and then it goes out of the end zone."
The XFL return rate in 2020 was 93% and did not incur a single concussion, according to Schwartzstein, who is now a Thursday night football analytics expert for Prime Video. The 2023 XFL had a 90% return rate but injury information is not yet available, a spokesman said.
XFL coaches have generally used blocking schemes similar to run plays on their kickoff returns, and the average return in 2023 was a modest 21.7 yards. But Schwartzstein said he envisioned multiple options and avenues based on the body type and skill set of the players involved.
"When coaches really embrace it and buy in, they're going to try new things," he said. "That's what makes this play so fun."
McKay and the competition committee will spend the time between now and next offseason studying details of the XFL play, while also considering other options. Change happens slowly in the NFL -- it took five years of debate before enough owners were convinced in 2015 to move back the extra point by 13 yards -- but McKay is eager to advance the conversation.
"I wouldn't say it's impossible to approve something like this in a year," he said. "But most rules that have major changes take time. Let's see what the data shows us not just from their rule, but from our rule in 2023. We don't have to just adopt their formation just the way it is. Maybe we tweak it. But the concept of putting those players closer together and further down the field, to me there's something to that.
"What I do know is that the concussion rate numbers the past two years have been disappointing, and we have to follow the data."
ESPN NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss contributed to this story.