The NFL is trying to make the game safer. One of the ways they are doing this is by trying to curb the most dangerous play. Kickoff returns are one of the most dangerous plays according to data and a new experimental rule was put in to try and curb the number of returns. It must have worked because kickoff returns were at a historic low during week 1.
Kickoff Returns Reach Historic Low
The new rule puts the ball at the 25-yard line even if returners called for a fair catch inside the 25. This eliminates the “pop-up” kick just short of the goal line that teams were employing to try and pin their opponents deep in their own territory. This resulted in a historically low 20.5% kickoff return rate in week 1. The Week 1 touchback rate of 77.6% was the highest since 2000. The league is trying to hit the 70% touchback rate as the data shows this drastically reduces the number of concussions.
The End Of The Return?
It makes sense why there are so many injuries. Both teams are running full speed on a kickoff. The issue is the return has been a game-changing play in many big games. To eliminate that part of it is to eliminate a part of the game. The XFL experimented with different rules and the NFL could look to experiment some more. This is only a one-year rule change for sure. The owners could decide to do something different in 2024. However, assuming the rate stays where it is, I would be surprised if they changed the rule back.
Expect to see fewer kickoff returns in 2023 and beyond. I would not be surprised if long term the play is eliminated entirely but at this point, it is here to stay in some form.