NFL kickoffs are so back, plus Jordan Montgomery finally signs

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Good morning! Aaron Rodgers will play football this year.

Ch-Ch-Changes: This is a pro-new rules newsletter

Over the last two years, we have seen major American sports adopt huge rule changes. Before last season, baseball revolutionized itself to great effect. We even covered a big NFL rule tweak yesterday. Today brings another, and it could be bigger than baseball’s.

Yes, NFL kickoffs are undergoing a serious makeover. But it might not look that different to us on TV — and this is a good thing. Multiple layers here: 

  • NFL owners voted 29-3 yesterday to adopt the new kickoff format, which is meant to encourage more returns and increase player safety. The kicker still kicks from his own 35-yard line, with his teammates lined up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line, five yards away from the return team’s blockers. Two kick returners will line up in a “landing zone” between the 20 and the goal line. 
  • There’s the encouragement part: Any kick that lands in the end zone is a touchback, and any kick that lands before the landing zone will get spotted at the receiving team’s 40. If the ball lands in the landing zone, the receiving team must return it.
  • The safety rub: The kicking team won’t be allowed to move until the ball lands in the landing zone, which prevents players from careening into each other with 40-yard head starts. This is a good thing.
  • Kick returns are so back. We have largely lost the play over the last decade, as kickers have booted the ball farther and teams have opted for lower risk via touchbacks. In 2023, just 22 percent of kickoffs were returned at all. Expect teams to start tweaking roster construction in turn, just as the Steelers did yesterday by adding Cordarrelle Patterson.

Here’s a good example of the new format in action. Once the returner’s running with the ball, it looks like a normal kickoff return. Ted Nguyen has a great explainer of the entire concept here, which is worth a read today. 

This will also have downwind effects. College officials are already planning to study the new format this year and possibly adopt it in the college game soon. Can NFL officials adopt the college overtime format now, too? 

If you paid attention to baseball last year, this sounds familiar. Officials made rule changes to speed up the game and encourage steals — something that had likewise become sort of a bygone play — and, shocker, steals exploded. Games went faster. The sport became more fun. 

Anyway. I’m excited to see more kickoff returns. I miss the Devin Hester era.

News to Know

‘MNF’ shakeup?
Breaking early this morning: ESPN is targeting Jason Kelce for its “Monday Night Football” lineup, which could be part of a larger reshuffle of on-air talent around the franchise, sources told The Athletic’s Andrew Marchand. Robert Griffin III could leave the MNF pregame show, while Larry Fitzgerald’s role is also in jeopardy. See Andrew’s full report here for more on this and the network’s pursuit of Bill Belichick.

DBacks snag Montgomery
The last of Scott Boras’ prized free agents is off the market just two days before Opening Day, as Jordan Montgomery signed a one-year, $25 million deal with the Diamondbacks yesterday. It’s a perfect addition for Arizona, who lost to Montgomery’s Rangers last year in the World Series. For the left-handed pitcher, it’s another stop in what has been a tumultuous — and fruitful — three years.

Giroud heading to MLS
AC Milan striker Olivier Giroud is finalizing a deal to join LAFC in the summer, sources told The Athletic’s Tom Bogert, a big move for an LAFC team that sits second in the Western Conference. Giroud, 37, has still been productive for Milan and for the French national team, where he’s the all-time leading scorer. See the full report here.

Rodgers won’t be VP
Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is selecting California lawyer Nicole Shanahan as his running mate in the upcoming election, declining to select Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the slot after giving him consideration. Rodgers’ offseason has now included a possible third-party vice presidential run, a controversy over Jeffrey Epstein-related comments and strife over alleged past comments on the Sandy Hook tragedy.

More news

Watch This Game

NBA: Clippers at Sixers
7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
The Clips continue their weird slide while Philly is figuratively and literally limping toward the playoffs. This game is important to both for seeding purposes, and comes on the heels of a frustrating Sixers loss against their old point guard

NHL: Bruins at Lightning
7:30 p.m. ET on TNT
We’re back with Boston because frankly it’s a light sports night. I want to focus on Tampa Bay, who is simply good again at the right time. We currently consider them a 100 percent certainty to make the playoffs but a longshot to actually do any damage. This will be a good test.

Pulse Picks

One single pre-snap motion — first deployed by Miami for speedy wideout Tyreek Hill — has changed NFL offenses in just one year. Jourdan Rodrigue explains how something Mike McDaniel concocted while he was “bored” is now a feature for, well, everyone. Great read. 

We’ll have plenty more on MLB’s Opening Day tomorrow. For now, make sure to read our fresh MLB offseason grades 2.0 file, updated Monday. 

After a magical first year of Hubert Davis’ tenure as head coach, his Tar Heels wobbled last season. This year? This is clearly Davis’ program — for a long time

There must always be drama within USMNT, apparently. Team manager Gregg Berhalter and commentator/former Premier League manager Jesse Marsch continued their long-running feud this week, which was emblematic of the “ultra-competitive” relationship between the two. 

Please give a hearty welcome to Gabby Herzig, our newest golf writer, who is welcoming the first-tee jitters that come along with a new gig. I’m excited to see what she does for us. 

Most-clicked in the newsletter yesterday: Bruins coach Jim Montgomery told his players they needed to “wake the f— up” before last night’s game against the Panthers. I guess it worked

Most-read on the website yesterday: The men’s Sweet 16 starts tomorrow. We reseeded those 16 teams.

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(Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

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