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Ravens Insider: Ravens coach John Harbaugh: NFL kickoff overhaul raises ‘a lot of questions’


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ORLANDO, Fla. — The biggest change to the NFL in years will take place when next season kicks off.

NFL owners approved a major overhaul of kickoffs Tuesday at the league’s annual meeting. Beginning next season, kickers will continue to kick from the 35-yard line, but the other 10 players on the kicking team will line up at the opposing team’s 40 with at least nine players on the receiving team lined up in a “setup zone” between the 35 and 30 and up two returners in a “landing zone” between the goal line and 20.

Only the kicker and returner(s) will be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or a player in the landing zone.

No fair catches will be allowed and touchbacks will be marked at the 30. If a team wishes to attempt an onside kick, it will have to tell the officials and would be allowed to line up in a traditional formation, thus eliminating the surprise element.

Twenty-nine of the league’s 32 owners approved the proposal, competition chairman Rich McKay said. A proposal needs approval by 24 of the 32 owners to pass.

The new rule, which will be in place for one season before it is reviewed and voted on again, is designed to increase the number of returns per game after a steady decline — including a record-low 23.7% in 2023 — while also attempting to decrease the number of injuries from high-speed collisions.

“I think it will [be a positive]. I say that with a little bit of hesitation. We will still have to tinker with it,” commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday. “We will reevaluate it as the season goes on. I think it will be a big improvement. I think it will bring it back to a relevant play, an exciting play.”

Not everyone agrees, however.

The Green Bay Packers, Las Vegas Raiders and San Francisco 49ers were the three teams that voted against the proposal. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, meanwhile, voted for the proposal, but coach John Harbaugh is not entirely sold on the new format.

“It’s always in the details, and that’s the challenge we’re going to have right now with that,” Harbaugh, who spent nine seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles’ special teams coach before Baltimore hired him in 2008, said Monday, the day before the proposal passed. “The line of scrimmage is a big part of football. It’s been around for quite a while, and that play takes the line of scrimmage out of it.

“It’s just a different kind of a football play. I just appreciate that we’re exploring every option up to that point to where we have to make that kind of a move. Is that the right move at this time? I don’t know. I think that’s to be determined.”

The new format follows that of the XFL, though in that league players are lined up between the returning team’s 30 and 35. In the XFL’s two seasons, more than 90% of kickoffs have been returned.

“We’re in the business of creating an entertaining product and putting a product on the field that should be competitive in every moment,” McKay said. “And we had created a play that was no longer competitive, and our [goal was] to try to find a way to make that play competitive. This was, in our opinion, our best option.

“Yes, it’s a big change, but the time has come to make that change.”

In an effort to reduce head injuries, including concussions, the NFL over the past 15 years had made incremental changes to kickoffs, including moving the kick from the 30-yard line to the 35, banning wedge and double-team blocks and last year allowing a fair catch to be marked at the 25. Touchbacks increased and return rates fell, but concussion rates per kickoff, the league said, remained relatively stable even with the changes.

With kickoffs having trended toward a ceremonial act, discussion began just a couple of years ago of taking it out of the game entirely.

Now the league has gone the other direction. Several coaches are in favor it.

“You felt like that took a significant amount of plays out of the game, and those were from special teams,” Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell said Tuesday. “And you don’t make it up really anywhere else. So, we put an emphasis on it. So, I believe in it.”

Added Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, whom Harbaugh served under in Philadelphia: “I’m all for it. You have 2,000 dead plays. Nobody wants to see that. It’ll add excitement and newness.”

What kind of impact it has — from the types of players who are used on returns to how rosters are constructed to how many returns and big plays it will spark — remains to be seen.

There is some thought, for example, that the formation could play like a cover-zero defense, with only one layer of defenders to get past before a player can break free. It will also call on kicking teams to devise new ways to attack returners. The Ravens also lost their top returner, two-time Pro Bowl selection Devin Duvernay, to the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency earlier this month.

“The kickoff return has been around for a long time in football,” Harbaugh said. “I’m passionate about that myself.

“Everybody wants to get returns back. Everybody’s on the same page with that. How you go about doing that, there’s a lot of questions because it’s a big change. I think there are just a lot of questions.”

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