Every year, the NFL works with leading biomechanical engineers to complete a review of certain player impacts to better understand behavior that could lead to injuries on the field.
The data is reviewed by the league and NFL Players Association and made available to medical experts, clubs, players, coaches and the NFL Competition Committee to guide them in making changes to the rules of the game.
“If there’s a high rate of injuries on one certain aspect of the game or play, the league is going to look at the rules and see if there’s something we can do to make the play safer,” says Kansas City Chiefs assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Dave Toub.
“Rules get changed every year and really it’s about safety for the players,” he said.
The most recent injury data and video review showed that over the course of all games during the 2015-2017 seasons, the kickoff represented only six percent of plays but 12 percent of concussions.
Before the 2018 season, NFL clubs approved significant new rules changes that aim to improve player safety, including modifying the kickoff play.
Preserving the Play
Coach Toub was one of nine coaches who worked closely with the NFL Competition Committee to make significant modifications to the kickoff, while also ensuring the play would be preserved.
“I’ve been involved in special teams for 18 years in the NFL and the game has really changed a lot,” Coach Toub said, noting that the Committee wanted “to come up with an idea that we thought would really help […] make it a safer and more exciting play.”
A Collaborative Effort
Coach Toub and his fellow coaches worked extensively to craft a proposal for the Competition Committee’s consideration.
“We did meetings and conference calls. We also included the other 23 coaches to tell them what we talked about. And we came up with one plan everybody was happy with,” he said.
After weeks of preparation, the group presented their recommendations.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“Everybody wants to see the play stay in the game,” Coach Toub said.
“That we were able to come up with an idea that would make the play more exciting and help with the protection of the players was huge,” he said. “I was very proud of being part of that group.”
NFL clubs approved the proposed kickoff modifications during the Spring League Meeting.
The Kickoff Rules
The kickoff rules took effect in 2018 and were made permanent for the 2019 season.
One of the most noticeable changes to the kickoff rule is the start position: the kickoff team must have five players on each side of the ball and cannot line up more than one yard from the restraining line.
The change prevents a running start and aims to reduce the speed of collisions.
“In the past, you got free runners coming down the field blowing up returners, so we took that away with this new setup,” Coach Toub said.
On the other side, the kickoff return now has a 15-yard set up area to bring players closer together as they run down the field.
“Before, you had guys really deep coming forward and those long-distance collisions [were] causing a lot of injuries,” he said.
“[Now], we have eight players in that zone and then we have three players deep, a returner and two blockers – so they run down the field like a punt,” Coach Toub said.
Additionally, wedge blocks are no longer permitted, players on the return team may not initiate a block within the first 15 yards, and receiving teams are no longer required to “down” the ball in the end zone.
Throughout the offseason, the league worked closely with players and coaches to share information about the new kickoff rules.
Coach Toub emphasized the importance of communicating health and safety related rules changes with players.
“Players want to know why something is [changing],” Coach Toub said. “We talked about how injuries are happening on kickoff and [what we’re doing] to make it safer.”
He also underscored the importance of translating that knowledge into action.
“Teaching is everything,” Coach Toub said.
Steps to Reduce Injury
Enforcing rules changes like the kickoff modifications are a key component of the NFL’s 2018 Injury Reduction Plan – an initiative that aims to reduce the incidence of concussions this season.
Coach Toub is optimistic the kickoff rules can help reduce aspects of the play that put players at risk of injury.
“I think everybody, everybody’s on board with these changes,” Coach Toub said.
“Coaches are implementing [the rules] the way we want them to be implemented and it’s looking good,” he said.
“We’re getting what we want out of the play – I think it’s going to help.”