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John Harbaugh Talks About Adjusting to New Kickoff Rules

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh speaks to the media during an NFL football media availability, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Owings Mills, Md.
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh speaks to the media during an NFL football media availability, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Owings Mills, Md.

NFL kickoffs will look a lot different next season.

Owners voted 29-3 to revamp the league's kickoff rules at the league's annual meeting on Tuesday. The kickoff rule changes are aimed at bringing more returns into the game while also addressing player safety. Touchback rates have dramatically increased in recent years, and the kickoff return rate fell to a league-record low 21.7% in 2023.

Head Coach John Harbaugh said he was in favor of the kickoff changes on Monday.

"The thing I really appreciate about [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell is the passion and the determination to get the kickoff back into the game [and] to keep the game as exciting as it can possibly be," Harbaugh said. "The kickoff return has been around for a long time in football. I'm passionate about that myself. I think for Roger to be championing that and getting behind that and to be exploring every opportunity to keep the kickoff return in the game and make it exciting, that's what I'm happy about. I think it's the right thing to do."

The kickoff changes will feature new alignments and rules for both the kicking and receiving teams, including:

  • Kickers will continue kicking from the 35-yard line, but the remaining 10 players on the kicking unit will line up at the opposing team's 40-yard line. The receiving team will line up with at least seven players in the "set-up zone," a 5-yard area between their own 35- and 30-yard lines.
  • There will be a "landing zone," an area between the receiving team's goal line and its 20-yard line that will prompt action on the kickoff if the ball lands in that zone. A maximum of two returners can line up in the landing zone, and a returner may move at any time before or during the kickoff.
  • After the ball is kicked, the kicker cannot cross the 50-yard line and the 10 kicking team players cannot move until the ball hits the ground, goes into the end zone, or a player in the landing zone goes into the end zone. Players in the set-up zone cannot move until the kick hits the ground, lands in the end zone, or touches a player in the landing zone or end zone.

The new format will move the majority of the kicking and return teams downfield to minimize high-speed collisions. It will go into effect for one year only in anticipation of possible tweaks over time.

Harbaugh said the changes will force players and coaches to adjust their strategy on kickoffs, but he believes it's worth the effort to bring more kickoff returns into the game. The new kickoff rules follow the structure and philosophy that were used by the XFL. More than 90% of kickoffs were returned during the XFL's two seasons.

Harbaugh was impressed when he listened to a presentation at the league meetings made by Cowboys Special Teams Coach John Fassell and Saints Special Teams Coordinator Dan Rizzi, who spent two years working with the Competition Committee on the kickoff proposal. Players adept at making explosive kickoff returns should have more opportunities.

"We want to get kickoff returns back," Harbaugh said. "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.

"Special teams-wise with [Special Teams Coordinator] Chris Horton, who I think is an amazing coach, we're going to look at the new kickoff rules, and then personnel and then scheme. John did a great job, and Darren Rizzi did a great job, too. Those guys are great coaches. They figured out a way to make the play workable, so I'm satisfied that the play is workable."

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