With every NFL off-season comes proposed rule changes, most of which do not get passed by the league. However, on May 23rd 2023, the NFL passed a new rule that could impact how teams construct their roster for the upcoming season.
That new rule is, on kick-offs, if a returner elects to fair catch the ball anywhere between the goal line and the 25-yard line, the team will start their possession on the 25. NFL insider Steve Wyche provided some details via his Twitter account:
The NFL just passed a rule (for one season) that if a fair catch is made on a kickoff anywhere between the 25-yard line and the goal line, the ensuing drive will start at the 25. The reason for change? Player safety. pic.twitter.com/JTIgkc7ptO— Steve Wyche (@wyche89) May 23, 2023
An interesting aspect of the change is that it is only changed for the upcoming season, meaning it is basically going through a test run to see if it is something the NFL wants to implement permanently. The driving force of the rule seems to be player safety, as the kick-off is notoriously one of the more dangerous plays in football:
Speaking on the new fair catch rule, NFL exec Jeff Miller cites higher concussion rates on kickoffs and punts relative to other plays and says unprompted: “There may be more to come.”— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) May 23, 2023
Modeling says return rate will drop from 38% to 31% and concussion rate drop 15%, Miller says.
While player safety is vital and something that the NFL is striving to make a priority of theirs, there is a flip side to that coin of such a big change to one of the three phases of the game. There are a ton of players in the league that rely on their special teams ability to make the 53-man roster, with kick-off and punt teams being the catalyst for those spots. All of a sudden, those players do not mean as much, their role basically slashed. Pat McAfee shared his thoughts on the change, voicing some conerns:
With such a change, the need for competent kick-off coverage becomes almost meaningless, as the league is going to reward teams for electing to fair catch the ball if it does not go in the endzone for a touchback. All of a sudden, having a good kick returner doesn’t matter, all you need is a player that can fair catch and secure the return, no actual return necessary.
Now, we must ask, How does all this impact the Rams?
Well, first and foremost, most Rams fans are aware that the team did not retain Brandon Powell, their kick/punt returner for the past couple of seasons. Prior to Powell, L.A. struggled to find a reliable return man that could consistently set the team up with solid field position, which made Powell a vital part of the team.
Now, with the rule change, the Rams don’t need a player like Powell to set the team up with solid field position. If the kick results in a touchback, the team will start at the 25. If the kick does not reach the endzone, then just fair catch it and the worst case is you start at the 25. With the change, the play is basically taken out of the game, with no true upside to trying to return the ball other than the small chance you get a nice return out of it.
Even with the chance of the return, NFL coaches love to minimize overall risks, and more bad things can happen (fumble, bad return, poor field position, penalties) than good on a play that is meant for optimizing field position or, if you’re the kickoff coverage team, making the field as long as possible for your opponent.
Now, the Rams don’t need a game-breaking return man, they just need someone who can catch a kick, opening up a roster spot for perhaps an extra offensive-lineman or any other position that may need some more depth. Not only do they not need a good returner anymore, but you also don’t need the 3-4 guys who were amazing kick-off coverage guys, you just need a kicker that can get the ball to at least the 25 yard line and, chances are, the returner will just fair catch and begin the drive at the 25.
In my eyes, this is a horrible rule change and will most likely lead to the kick-off being taken out of the game entirely. As a lifelong football fan and even someone who played, taking what is an integral part of the sport out of the game just does not feel right, despite the claims for prioritizing the safety of the players.
Listen, I am all for player safety, but these guys know what football is about and are all well aware of the risks that come with the game. Football is dangerous, injuries happen due to the violence of the game and, trust me, these players know. The fact that there will be a handful of guys who rely heavily on their special teams abilities to make rosters that will be negatively impacted just flat out sucks, and I anticipate a lot of guys will lose their spots due to the change.