New England Patriots

Jan 2, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots kickoff team wait for play to resume during the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is making a major change to one of the most basic special teams plays – apparently to the displeasure of the New England Patriots.

On Tuesday at the Spring League Meetings, the NFL passed Playing Rule Proposal 16A, which changes the kickoff rule. As a trial run during the 2023 season, if a player calls fair catch inside the 25-yard line on a kickoff, it will be ruled as a touchback, and the receiving team will get to start its next drive with the ball at the 25.

In the past players had been allowed to call for a fair catch on a kickoff, but this was rarely done outside of the end zone. Such a decision would have spotted the ball at the point of the catch, with no advancement. That will still be the case if a player calls fair catch from beyond the 25.

  • This brings the NFL kickoff rule in line with the college football rule. The NCAA put that in place in 2018.

    Like the college rule, the NFL cited player safety as the reason for this change. According to a recent survey, one in six concussions occur on special teams plays, as well as 30 percent of major knee injuries.

    By changing the rule, the league is counting on cutting back significantly on kickoff returns. When the NCAA adopted the rule in 2018, kickoff returns fell from 54.2 percent the previous year to 42.4 percent. Last season in the NFL, just 40.3 percent of kickoffs were returned.

  • Not everybody was on board with the rule change, with multiple reports in the days leading up to the vote indicating special teams coordinators were “unanimously opposed.” In the end, only five teams voted against the change. According to SI’s Albert Breer, “the proposal wasn’t close to passing Monday. Roger Goodell lobbied hard for it overnight, and flipped…12-14 no’s.”

    The Patriots were, unsurprisingly, one of the teams to vote no. They were joined by the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears, and Detroit Lions. Of those five, four (the Ravens excluded) were in the bottom half of the league in touchback percentage – often an indication the team’s strategy was to encourage returns and rely on strong coverage to keep teams short of the 25 yard line. The Patriots ranked 30th in touchback percentage last year at 36.5 percent, and were just one of three NFL teams under 44 percent in the category (Pittsburgh, Green Bay).

    Given this rule change is just a trial run for now, the league could still experiment with other ways to cut down on kickoff injuries without essentially removing the play from the game. One rule set that seems to work and has seen strong support from around the football world is that used by the new XFL.

  • In the XFL, the kicker kicks the ball off from the 30-yard line. Rather than the coverage team being in line with him though, the other 10 players all line up at the opponent’s 35, with the return team (excluding the returner) lined up just five yards away at the 30. The kicker has to kick the ball to at least the 20 yard line – if it comes up short or goes out of bounds before the end zone, it’s a procedure penalty that gives the offense the ball at the 45.

    Once the ball is kicked, neither side can move until returner has touched the ball, or it was been on the ground for at least three seconds. Once it is caught, it sets up like a normal kick return, although the returner can still take a knee if the ball is fielded in the end zone.

    This setup eliminated the full-speed, head-on collisions that are so dangerous on kickoffs while still facilitating returns and keeping a play involving significant strategy in the game. With this rule, the XFL has a kickoff return rate of over 90 percent and increased average starting field position, while also creating fewer injuries.

  • Could this be the answer the NFL has looking for? It’s been awhile, but the league hasn’t been afraid to use concepts from competitors in the past. Broadcast elements such as the flywire camera and having players mic’ed up came from the original XFL, and two-point conversions were adapted in part from both the CFL and original USFL.

    In the meantime though, the Patriots will have to adjust to this new college-style kickoff rule. We’ll get our first look at how they’ll handle it this week, with the first OTA practice open to the media on Thursday.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at