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Bengals, NFL Get Ready To Kick Off New Rule

HB Trayveon Williams
HB Trayveon Williams

ORLANDO, Fla. _ In one of the most fundamental changes in the history of the game, NFL owners Tuesday approved a sweeping new kickoff rule they hope revives the return while keeping players safe.

The rule puts all but one of the 22 players in the receiving team's territory and offers three different touchbacks with the major one putting the ball at the 30 instead of the 25 if the ball goes in or out of the end zone on the fly.

That comes after a season where there was a record 1,970 balls in or through the end zone, plus 92 fair catches that resulted in about 2,000 no-plays. The NFL plans to revisit the rule after 2024.

Bengals special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Darrin Simmons, the longest-tenured kicking game coach in the league, has been intimately involved since the end of the season in helping a small working group of NFL special teams coaches tweak the rule first used in the XFL.

"This is the best alternative based on where we're at right now. The basic premise is reduction of speed and space," said Simmons Tuesday. "Guys aren't running as far to cover. Guys aren't dropping as far to block. It's just tight quarters. There's not going to be the same amount of open space. The play is going to look different. It's a fundamental change on the way it's played."

The jarring alignment provides what long-time competition committee chairman Rich McKay calls the optics for the biggest rule change of which he's presided:

As described by the Associated Press, for a standard kickoff the ball is kicked from the 35-yard line with the 10 kick coverage players lined up at the opposing 40, with five on each side of the field.

The return team would have at least nine blockers lined up in the "set up zone" between the 30- and 35-yard line, with at least seven of those players touching the 35. There would be up to two returners allowed inside the 20.

Only the kicker and two returners would be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or was touched by a returner inside the 20.

Any kick that reaches the end zone in the air can be returned, or the receiving team can opt for a touchback and possession at the 30. Any kick that reaches the end zone in the air and goes out of bounds or out of the end zone also would result in a touchback at the 30.

Although the NFL competition committee, of which Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn is a member, unanimously recommended the rule, the vote snagged Monday, largely, McKay said, because of the breadth of the new look. By Tuesday he had five more votes than necessary when it passed, 29-3.

"Special teams used to be a third of the game. Then it's been one-fourth or one-fifth. This is a way of putting an exciting play back into the game," Simmons said. "When the league came to us after the season was over and said it was unhappy with the way things went this year in terms of instituting the fair catch (now outlawed on the kickoff) and just the way the league has turned it into a non-play, they came to us to find an alternative way to make the game safer yet bring the excitement of the return back into the game. It's a very difficult thing to do.

"I'm not necessarily happy where it's at, but based upon where it is, this is the best resolution."

Simmons says it's going to be a process to find out what is the best roster construction in response to the rule. He said it looks like the best strategy is to use two returners, which is why Cowboys special teams coach John Fassel, another member of the working committee, says the value of kick returners just "skyrocketed."

One of the compromises that got the deal done is instead of making the end-zone touchback the 35, they made it the 30 and while McKay anticipates that cuts the increase in returns from about 85% to 50%, they still expect about 1,000-1,200 more returns.

The Bengals only had 17 returns last year, a dozen by backup running back Trayveon Williams for a very solid 24.2 yards per kick. Backup running back Chase Brown and Chris Evans each had two and wide receiver Trenton Irwin had one and now they'll have to mull if they need different players or both.

Some argue both the return and cover teams need bigger players because the play is more condensed. Simmons said the role of hybrid linebackers/edge players may expand on teams, but he's not ready to say he needs more backers at the expense of defensive backs. Of if they have to keep five running backs instead of four, for instance.

"You only have so many options on game day with 48 spots and you also still have to worry about first through third down," Simmons said. "It's something where we're going to learn as we go along."