The Cleveland Browns have fielded several dynamic kick returners over the decades.
Depending on your age, fans have pocketed numerous memories of exciting returns from the likes of Bobby Mitchell, Leroy Kelly, Greg Pruitt, Gerald McNeil and Josh Cribbs, just to name a few.
But the next generation of Browns fans may not have the same experience after NFL owners approved a resolution on Tuesday to allow returners to fair catch a kickoff inside their 25-yard-line and have the offense begin the possession at their 25-yard-line. The ball will also come out to the 25 on touchbacks.
The NFL has passed a new rule instituting all fair catches and touchbacks come out to the 25-yard line on kickoffs, source said. Now the same as the college rule, the thought is that this should make it safer, though special teams coaches around the league oppose the change.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 23, 2023
The rule change, which for the moment will only be on the books for the 2023 season, is a result of the league trying to make an inherently unsafe portion of the game safer, or at least as safe as possible, according to Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s competition committee (quote via NFL.com):
“The kickoff play for us has been a play that has had a lot of changes for us over the years, all really driven by health and safety. The concussion rate on the play has gone up. It’s gone up because the ball is being returned more by kicks that are being hung inside the 5-yard line. College made this rule change in maybe 2018 or 2019. We looked at their data and said, you know what, this is the right thing to do now. We just can’t sit there and ignore that data.”
According to the NFL.com story, the league expects that the rule change will see the kickoff return rate decrease from 38 percent to 31 percent, which in turn will decrease the concussion rate by 15 percent.
While the owners were in favor of the rule change, McKay admitted that the league’s special teams coaches are not exactly on board because they now have to coach their part of the game differently. But everything about the game is always evolving - kickoffs used to take place from the 40-yard-line and everyone has survived since that was changed in 1974 and again in 1994 - so the coaches and players should be able to adapt to the latest rule change.
As it relates to the Browns, the rule change could take a roster spot away from Jakeem Grant Sr., who the club signed in free agency in 2022 in large part to throw a charge into the return game. Unfortunately, Grant missed the entire season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in training camp, and given that he is not much of a threat as a wide receiver, his time in Cleveland may be coming to an end before it ever got started.
Change is coming to the return game on kickoffs, and even though the fair catch rule is just on a one-year trial, it would not be surprising to see the league make the change permanent after collecting the data from this season.
With the rule in place, it is now up to special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone to figure out the best way for the Browns to take advantage of the changes.