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Cardinals Begin Transition To New Kickoff World

Rule change expected to create returns 60 percent of time while being safer

Kickoffs will be drastically different for kicker Matt Prater, the Cardinals and the entire NFL this season.
Kickoffs will be drastically different for kicker Matt Prater, the Cardinals and the entire NFL this season.

Before his players returned to the building, Jeff Rodgers wanted a visual of what the NFL's new kickoff rules would look like on the field. So he used the bodies available.

Inside the Cardinals' practice bubble, coaches, personnel men and other football people lined up to walk through the drastic special teams change – including head coach Jonathan Gannon.

"We've been repping it out there," Gannon said in the days after. "I've been 'R5.' It'll be an exciting play, hopefully for the betterment of the game. We've got to make it an advantage for us.

"I thought I made every tackle, (Rodgers) said maybe not."

The players have finally, in Phase Two, been able to line up themselves on the field, a couple weeks after Rodgers introduced the rules – complete with the bubble video – in a meeting. The new rule, a one-year trial approved at March's owners meetings, is at once supposed to goose kickoff return numbers while also increasing safety during the play.

"This rule has been written unlike any other rule has been written in the NFL," Rodgers said, who added that the rule has already undergone some tweaks since the first version was passed in Orlando.

It's an offshoot of what the XFL had, but Rodgers said there are enough differences that he didn't think that showing his players XFL examples would help in the transition. For the NFL, everyone but the kicker and return man (or men) must hold their position five yards apart at the return team's 40 and 35, respectively. The kicker still boots the ball from his own 35, but no one can move until the ball is touched or it hits the ground in the "landing zone" between the goal line and the 20. Touchbacks will come out to the 30; if a kicker fails to get it to the landing zone, it's the 35.

Onsides kicks are now moot until the fourth quarter, when a team can try a maximum of two and must declare that is what they are doing to be able to line up in the "old" way for a kickoff.

"There are things you are going to have to coach that you haven't coached before," Rodgers said, for instance, how the blockers up front start the play – looking back at the ball waiting for it to be touched, knowing the coverage team is five yards away, or just watching the coverage team until they move.

Hybrid kickoff diagram 2024

The NFL is expecting actual kickoff returns, which had dwindled to about 22 percent of the time, to jump to around 60 percent of the time – or 1,500 more live plays per NFL season.

Finding time to teach the players in during offseason work, or even training camp practices, will be on the shoulders of the coaching staff.

"It's not like the CBA is going to say, 'Hey, because we have a new rules, here is 20 more minutes,'" Rodgers said.

The work isn't just about finding time on the field. Rodgers said in previous years, he'd spend about 10 to 15 percent of his time on kickoffs and kickoff return. That is now about 60 percent of his time. It wasn't worth prepping beforehand because a kickoff change had been hinted at many times with ultimately nothing passed by owners, and Rodgers didn't want to waste time for something that wasn't going to pass.

"I told someone the other day, it's like you're running the spread offense and all of a sudden you're running the wishbone," Rodgers said. "It's still blocking, tackling, angles, ball security, all those things still exist, but the setup is different."

Rodgers understands the need for a change; at the owners meetings, it was made clear that the kickoff was in danger of being legislated out of the game without a drastic evolution.

Kicker Matt Prater knows it'll take some work; the need for the ball to carry over the two lines of tacklers/blockers and drop into the landing zone without reaching the end zone will take touch.

"It'll kind of be trial and error," Prater said. "Since I've been playing kickoffs have always been rip it and rip it, so now it'll be a little more strategic."

"Hopefully," he added, "I won't be involved in too many tackles."

Rodgers is in favor of the new rules, knowing both the future risk to the play and the need for increased safety.

And Gannon, his own coverage techniques aside, just wants to adapt his team so the Cardinals make it work.

"When the forward pass was invented, people ran with it and (some) people didn't," Gannon said. "We've got to make it an advantage."