Will NFL have new kickoff rules next season? Owners will vote on proposal Monday

ORLANDO, Fla. — John Fassel stepped out of the Ritz-Carlton ballroom with a pencil behind his ear, as always. The Dallas Cowboys’ special teams coordinator was invited to his first league meetings with a special responsibility this year: to present the new kickoff proposal to all 32 NFL owners for the first time.

Fassel and New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi spent Sunday afternoon doing their best to convince ownership that the kickoff play has been a non-factor and that its revival is of the utmost importance for the NFL. The duo is well practiced by now at explaining the new kickoff — to their special teams peers across the NFL, to the competition committee — but this was their first time in a room with NFL ownership.

The proposal aims to increase kickoff returns and reduce injury by eliminating the running start of the kickoff team and by incentivizing kickers to drop kicks into a landing zone, which extends from the goal line to the 20-yard line. Any kick that drops in the landing zone must be returned. If it bounces into the end zone from the landing zone, it must be returned or downed, and any kick that falls short of the landing zone will be treated like an out-of-bounds kickoff and placed on the receiving team’s 40-yard line. Any kick that lands in the end zone or goes out of the back of the end zone is a touchback and placed on the 30-yard line.

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Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel, left, made his pitch on some new kickoff rules to NFL owners Sunday in Orlando, Fla. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

Competition committee chairman Rich McKay said that in 2010 there were 416 touchbacks and 45,000 return yards. This season, there were 1,970 touchbacks and just 13,000 return yards.

Fassel said players and fans are getting bored, and there’s a lot of wear and tear on special teams players from all the running and little payoff.

Fassel said the owners will vote on the new kickoff proposal Monday, and he doesn’t know which way it will go. He woke up feeling good about it, but at the end of the meetings at 5 p.m., he wasn’t as confident.

“I feel like it’s leaning towards yes but teetering,” Fassel told The Athletic. “It’s kind of going in waves. Like, you feel great. Like, ‘Ahh, it’s gonna go!’ And then I feel like there’s cold feet.”

In what might sweeten the proposal for some owners who are resistant to change, NFL Network reported that the competition committee unanimously decided Monday to change part of the original kickoff proposal. The original proposal had touchbacks coming out to the receiving team’s 35-yard line, and with the change approved Sunday, touchbacks that go into the end zone on the fly will come out to the 30-yard line instead, a much more digestible field position.

That still might not be the final version of the new kickoff that passes Monday, if one does. Fassel said they discussed multiple changes to the proposal in the meeting.

“Things could constantly change,” Fassel said. “It could be as simple as the kicker — do we have the kicker on the 30 or the 35? Is the landing zone going to 20 or going to 25? Do we put a kickoff team on the 40? Little, incremental changes, but all those things affect return percentage, drive starts.”

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Fassel didn’t have to work hard to convince Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

“He loves it,” Fassel said. “He’s a little bit of a — not an older-school mindset, but he wants the play to be more of a factor than it was this past year. It was just a non-factor. One of every five got returned. It’s like 20 percent. And that’s just not good enough.”

And Jones’ Cowboys have been at the forefront of NFL teams preparing for a new kickoff. Fassel has been a fan of the play since the XFL debuted a version of it in 2021, and he even had his special teams unit practicing the play twice during OTAs last year and twice during training camp.

“Just in the anticipation that if it goes this way, I would be educated from a coach’s perspective to talk about it in those meetings,” Fassel said.

Fassel said owners didn’t ask questions during his presentation; it was more the general managers and coaches in the room. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who has a special teams background, asked several scheme-specific questions about blocking.

Fassel said it’s time to rip off the Band-Aid and move forward with a new play that he thinks will be adopted in all levels of football after the NFL.

During McKay’s news conference before the league meetings, he reviewed a concerning trend for the NFL: Scoring has been down since 2020, when the scoring average per game was 49 points. It dropped to 45 points in 2021, 43.7 points in 2022 and 43.5 points in 2023.

“The kickoff proposal this year will impact scoring, it will impact field position by at least 3 to 5 yards,” McKay said.

And if there’s one thing that makes Fassel feel better about his favorite rule’s chances?

“Owners want more scoring,” he said.

(Top photo: Luke Hales / Getty Images)

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