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Theory of why the NFL wants to get rid of the kickoff

New rules, new suggestions, new concepts

Kicker Phil Dawson #4 of the Cleveland Browns
Former Browns great Phil Dawson kicks off

It is a fact that the kickoff in American Football is a traditional part of the game.

However, it seems the NFL is edging towards eliminating this play altogether. The reason: injuries and concussions. And injuries in the league mean the possibility of blown out knees and assorted ankle ailments. With concussions this brings into the fold CTE. Of course, with CTE issues, this means lawyers, settlements, and money going to other sources which aren’t part of each NFL club owner’s wallet.

God runs the world, but before every major decision, he consults an attorney.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In traditional kickoffs, the kicking team is Hell’s bells going down the field like Kamikazes. And because of this, a lot of injuries occur. This has concerned the universe of professional football and the ones who make the rules, so they have decided to do something to reduce the number of injuries and concussions and possible CTE legal wrangling.

Every pro football league in existence today has attempted to address the problems with kickoffs.

In 2018, two rule variations were put into place: no more running start for the kicking team, and the abolition of double-team blocks for the receiving team.

For this 2023 season, the NFL has once again changed an aspect of the kickoff. They took a page from college football and now a fair catch on any kickoff will be placed at the 25-yard line regardless of where it is fielded.

Rich McKay, the NFL’s chairman of the competition committee, explained the reason for the new rule:

“I remain optimistic that we can find creative solutions, whether it’s a version of the XFL or a reboot of this play. 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.”

It has been a decade since the league has begun its quest to re-work the kickoff. Or should we say, eliminate it completely?

Origins of the kickoff and related rules

There have been tons of rules that have been deleted or changed since the game of American Football began in the 1880s.

Did you know that at one time an offensive punt could be recovered by either team and gain possession? What about heeling? No center does that anymore. Originally a forward pass could not exceed 20 yards while any incomplete pass came with a 15-yard penalty plus loss of down. And while the pass was in the air, it was perfectly legal to tackle the intended receiver.

So, things do change with this game.

In fact, the football itself has been reshaped four times from a watermelon rugby ball to the aerial dynamic shape it is today.

American Football evolved from Rugby Football which evolved from Association Football, commonly called “soccer” in North America. What rugby and American Football have done is simply copy a lot of the rules, descriptions, field attributes, equipment, language, and other assorted items from the game of football (soccer).

Soccer has a referee and a linesman so the other two sports do as well. Red and yellow flags? Yep, this was also copied. Centers, fullbacks, goal lines, clock kept on the field by the referee, punts, offsides, penalties, tackle, interception, pass, crossbar, uprights, and holding are all situations in every soccer match.


Soccer even plays 11-a-side, which so does American Football. Coincidence? Hardly.

Soccer begins each half and after each scored with a kickoff. And rugby?

Law 13 in rugby states:


1) The kick-off occurs at the start of the match and the restart of the match after half-time. Re-start kicks occur after a score or a touch down.

2) At the start of the game, the team whose captain elected to take the kick after winning the toss kicks off or the opposing team if the winning captain elected to choose an end. After the half-time interval, the opponents of the team who kicked-off at the start of the game kick-off. After a score the opponents of the team who scored kick-off.

Does all of this sound familiar? When any new sport became a spin-off from another sport, it needed structure. And that came from the original sport.

Basically, the kickoff in soccer trickled down to rugby which then became a part of American Football. Things changed from one sport to another which made it different, but also basic cores were utilized.

Because soccer had a kickoff, so did rugby, and so did American Football.

Different and evolving

Since the game of American Football is so vastly different than soccer, there isn’t anything other than tradition that would make the gridiron version keep certain aspects.

Every game that came from soccer is called football. Soccer is called “football” globally because it was the original and that has always been its name. Gaelic Football, Australian Rules Football, American Football, Canadian Football, Arena Football, and Rugby Football are all their official sports names. They all came from “football” and thus called themselves the same as the grandfather sport.

So, if American Football wanted to tinker with rules, over the decades the decision-makers did.

At one point, the forward pass was illegal as a nod to rugby. Originally, there weren’t any hash marks or end zones. This was added for necessity. The time was kept on the field like soccer and there were 45-minute halves just like soccer. Like baseball and soccer, if a player went out, he could not come back in. And only three subs per game were allowed just like soccer.

As time went on, all of these rules were altered/changed/deleted to fit the new sport. Or a competitor came up with the idea. From 1946-1949, the All-America Football Conference existed which is the birthplace of the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts. This league had unlimited substitutions. When these three clubs merged into the NFL in 1950, the NFL decided they liked that method and changed their rules to include unlimited substitutions which ended two-way players.

The game of American Football evolved, and the higher-ups discussed, argued, and voted on these changes.

Nobody today is boo-hooing when an offense punts on fourth down that they can’t recover it and get a new set of downs at a closer spot. At one time, this was a rule. Or the fact that when a runner went out of bounds, the next play began one yard in from the sidelines before hash marks were invented. Or that originally it was three downs to make five yards.

Seattle Seahawks v Cleveland Browns Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Basically, over the last decade, it has come to the attention of the pro football world that the kickoff is a major problem. To be factual, kickoffs have always been dangerous so it’s not a new thing. But in a “lawsuit world,” the very essence of the play has come to be a topic of conversation. One thing billionaires don’t want is something that loses them money – especially millions in payouts. That is certainly an attention-getter.

The process to change the kickoff

Although a lot of attention has been focused on the NFL tinkering with the kickoff, they are not the originators of messing with it. In fact, they are just one of the many followers.

The origins of American Football had the kickoff from the 40-yard line. This was done before each half, and after every scoring play, a kickoff from a placekicker is performed. The only exception is after a safety and then the ball can be put into play by either a placement kick, punt, or dropkick.

The beauty of a kickoff play is that the team that just scored has the ability to get the ball right back. An “onsides kick” allows the kicking team to regain possession as long as the kick travels 10 yards first and is then gathered by the kicking team.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

This also came from rugby and soccer. In rugby, a team in possession may legally kick the ball downfield and recapture possession, that is as long as the receiver of the kick was “onside” when the kick was first made. The term “onsides” is a soccer term.

This makes two components of the kickoff. One, to give the opponent the ball, and second, an opportunity for the kicking team to regain possession without their opponent’s offense ever touching the ball.

The first change to the kickoff rule came in 1920. Any kickoff that went out-of-bounds was a live ball and could be recovered by either team. That changed in 1926.

Including these two rules, there are been 72 rule changes regarding the kickoff. This includes timing rules, shoes, contact, foul enforcement, kicking tees, touchbacks, kickoffs out of bounds, formation, and the kickoff spot.

So, if you are an American Football traditionalist, guess what? The kickoff has been tinkered with a lot. That is a ton of rule changes for just one aspect of the game.

NFL: DEC 20 Raiders at Browns Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Take the kickoff spot for example. It was moved from the 40-yard line to the 50 in 1924 and then moved back to the 40 in 1926. After hash marks were invented in 1932, a team could no longer kick from the outer zones. In 1974, the kickoff was once again moved back, this time to the 35 then moved back again in 1994 to the 30-yard line which lasted for 17 seasons. In 2011, once again the kickoff spot was moved, this time back up to the 35, and has been a mainstay for 33 years.

Traditionists state that the game must keep its integrity and foundation. But the truth is, today’s game looks nothing like it did at conception. Not even close.

Other leagues’ take on the kickoff

Since the early days, there have been scores of other pro football leagues. And usually, because they are new, the club owners want to present things that are different that may set their league apart from the NFL.

Typically, this is done with rule changes.

Even though these other leagues have made kickoff alterations, instead of changing this play to set themselves apart from the established league, their intent has been to figure out a method that reduces concussions and injuries.

Tampa Bay Vipers v Seattle Dragons Photo by Rod Mar/XFL via Getty Images

The XFL has the kicker at his own 30-yard line with his kicking team at the opponent’s 35 while the receiving team’s blockers are at their own 30, just five yards apart. The return man is stationed near the goal line. None of the tacklers or blockers can move until the return man cradles the ball.

This rule was actually invented by the Fall Experimental Football League from 2014-2016 and adopted by the XFL which is used today.

The USFL has all kickoffs from their 20-yard line. In 2022, this was from the 25 and changed one year later. All kickoff team players must wait for the ball to be kicked before proceeding downfield.

Their onsides kick rule allows the team that just scored the opportunity to perform an onsides kick or attempt a 4th-and-15 from their own 33-yard line.

In the Alliance of American Football (AAF) in 2019, they eliminated the kickoff. The teams simply took possession at their own 25-yard line.

The naysayers have pointed out that a kickoff return is an electric play that stirs up the crowd. But prior to the AAF’s existence, in 2018 in the NFL only five kickoffs were returned for a touchdown. The number of head injuries running downfield at full speed in the AAF regarding the kickoff was zero.

And what about the onsides kick? The AAF had a rule that if one team is trailing by 17 or more points in the final five minutes after a touchdown the team with the lesser score can attempt a 4th-and-12 play from its own 28-yard line. If successful, they receive a new set of downs. If they fail, the other team gets possession at the shortened spot.

FOX Network rules analyst and former head of NFL officiating Mike Pereira spoke with USA Today about the new AAF kickoff rules back in 2019:

“It was an exciting play in these games. You get one play and if you reach the 40, you keep [the] ball. If not, the ball goes over to the other team. It can be punitive. If you throw an incomplete pass, the receiving team gets the ball at the 28-yard line. At least it gives teams an opportunity.”

And it kept concussions and knee injuries down.

Other leagues have tinkered with the kickoff. The Fan Controlled Football League also eliminated kickoffs with each team beginning at their own 10-yard line. The Arena Football League had a huge net that once the ball touched the netting it was a live ball and was fielded off the bounce. The World Football League kicked off from the 30-yard line at a time when the NFL kicked off from the 40. The Canadian Football League kicks off from the 30-yard line with traditional NFL rules regarding onside kicks.

Aggressive but slow-moving

The NFL concedes that simply altering kickoff rules in order to sabotage returns is coming to an end.

New England Patriots v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

With this new fair catch rule, it is estimated that concussions will decrease by 15%. But eliminating the tackler from hitting the return man is the only situation eliminated. The kickoff kamikazes are still flying downfield making contact and have to be dealt with even if a violent conclusion is not the outcome. Collisions will still be present regardless of a touchback or a fair catch.

What is at stake is the kickoff is the livelihood of many players and their special teams coaches.

Dr. Allen Stills, the NFL chief medical officer, stated on the Pat McAfee Show:

“While we figure this out, and we need to figure it out, this seems like something we can do. I think it’s a stopgap. I think it’s an interim measure while hopefully, we can figure out a better solution.”

Collisions will still be present regardless of a touchback or a fair catch. This new rule is not eliminating contact.

The new fair catch rule may seem aggressive in nature, but the NFL is generally sluggish when it deals with rules that have become part of the fabric of the game itself.

McKay further explained:

“It doesn’t feel like we have a lot of other options there. Reducing concussions via fewer returns is an ‘Okay result for this year.’ But the method is not preferred. None of that is preferred.”

Will the eventual outcome become an elimination of the kickoff completely just like the AAF did?

Now that the NFL has copied college football’s fair catch rule, perhaps they will consider either the XFL or USFL variations.

What the NFL wants is to keep players safe from unnecessary injuries and concussions. The kickoff is part of the game. But both versions in these developmental leagues have solved the primary issues the NFL is seeking to solve. And at the same time, touchbacks are rare and an actual return does happen which makes traditionalists happy.

McKay did state that the league competition committee will review both league’s kickoff formations and discuss if either might become a viable option. He added:

“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.”

NFL: OCT 02 Browns at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One thing is certain: Major changes in the NFL happen very leisurely. The kickoff is one of the main institutions of the game of American Football just like the symbolism of goalposts.

It is impossible to make a change like this in a single year, but the conversations in NFL circles have already begun. But if the prognosis is to eliminate the kickoff completely, you can bet it was on the advice of an attorney.