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Hoge's Bears Things: Why the new fair catch rule on kickoffs may backfire against the NFL

Adam Hoge Avatar
May 31, 2023

As the Bears get back on the field this morning for OTAs, I thought I’d take the time to address a topic I’ve been asked about a lot in the last week: the new fair catch rule on kickoffs.

Last week at the spring meetings in Minneapolis, NFL owners voted to approve fair catches on kickoffs on a one-year trial basis. On a kickoff fair catch, the ball will be placed at the 25-yard line. 

The Bears were one of six teams that voted against the new rule, with head coach Matt Eberflus sharing these thoughts last week:

“I think it will change tactically what teams are going to do, because the rule is in now — there’s nothing you can do about it. But it will change,” Eberflus said. “I think we’ll get more squib kicks, I think you’ll get more drop kicks, more drive kicks, those types of things, and make guys return it. I suspect you’ll see more returns than less. That’s just what I’m thinking right now, but we’ll see what happens.”

More returns? He might be right. And here’s why…

First off, talk to any football coach at any level and they’ll tell you about the importance of field position. Every team tracks its own data, but one team that shared data with me showed that starting a drive inside their own 20-yard-line only resulted in points 3 percent of the time. Getting to the 40-yard line increased the chances of scoring points to 33 percent. And getting to the opponent’s 40-yard-line increased those chances to over 50 percent. 

This is exactly why teams would prefer to attempt a kick return instead of settling for the 25-yard-line. The NFL has become a game of explosive plays and kick returns give teams a good shot at an explosive play to start every drive.

But kickoffs are also dangerous plays because there are more players running a longer distance at full speed. This is why the NFL has changed the rules on the kickoffs many times in the last decade.

First, they moved the kickoff from the 30-yard-line to the 35-yard-line to get more touchbacks. Teams found they still averaged better field position by taking returns out of the end zone. Then the NFL moved the field position on touchbacks from the 20-yard-line to 25-yard-line. Once again, there was an adjustment made by coaches. Teams with good kickers found that they could kick high and deep into the corners to force a return and pin teams inside the 25. 

Meanwhile, according to NFL data, concussions on kick returns continued to rise. Thus, the latest rule was passed last week. 

But will the rule really make a difference? The NFL says there were 19 concussions on kickoffs in 2022 and the new rule will reduce that number by 15%. So all this for 2.85 fewer concussions? 

Certainly a reduction in concussions is a good thing, but 2.85 isn’t exactly a large number — especially if Eberflus is right, and there ends up being more kick returns as a result of the new rule. 

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