The NFL approved significant changes to the kickoff play Tuesday, and Buffalo Bills great Steve Tasker thinks it's a move that will make the game better.
"The hope is they get something out of this that really helps the game and makes it more important rather than takes it off the table," said Tasker, who was part of a select NFL panel that discussed the proposed changes. "I think it opens the door for a safer and yet hopefully more exciting return."
The new rules prevent the kickoff coverage team from getting a running start. The coverage men must stand within a yard of the kickoff point (usually the 35-yard line) until the ball is kicked. Meanwhile, at least eight players on the return team must be within 15 yards of where the ball is kicked and there is no hitting in the 15-yard zone between where the ball is kicked and the front line of the return team. There's also no motion by the kicking team until the ball is kicked.
The rules are designed to make the kickoff return function more like a punt return, removing the high-speed collisions among players. The hope is the change significantly reduces concussions. The rule was approved at the spring owners meeting on a one-year basis.
There were 281 concussions diagnosed by the NFL in 2017. That was up from 243 documented concussions in 2016. The NFL has stated that players were five times more likely to get a concussion on a kickoff than any other play.
"Absolutely, something needed to be done due to the rate of injuries on the play," Tasker said. "I think the coaches responded to data that they hadn't previously been told about. I think it's going to work."
Blocking for kickoff returns will change drastically.
"Instead of guys colliding, they're going to be running more side by side," Tasker said. "It's going to be more of a punt-return mentality on the up-front guys for the return rather than the collision, kickoff-return wedge-buster."
Only two players on the return team (besides the returner) can be behind the 15-yard no blocking zone, and those two can't come together to form a wedge block, as was allowed in 2017. Bigger linemen, which have been used in the wedge, are not likely to be used anymore because the back three return players all will need to be able to field the ball.
Tasker on the return-unit blocking tactics: "They're going to try to run those guys out of their lanes while running with them rather than meeting them and knocking them over or knocking them out of their lane. So the collisions will be more of a running hand fight rather than a car wreck."
The touchback rate on kickoffs last year was 58.4 percent.
"One of the things the league was really upset about was you still had a bunch of concussions on touchbacks," Tasker said. "They were appalled by the fact on a play that didn't even count, guys were getting concussions because guys would blow each other up, not knowing the balls out of the end zone."
The average drive start after kickoffs last season was the 24.8, which counts all kickoffs that went for touchbacks. There were seven KO returns for TDs.
"Making this safer and taking away some of the techniques coaches have used will make it easier to get bigger returns and therefore you'll get guys trying to bring it out more often," Tasker said.
"You might see 12," he said of the TD total. "I think the league's going to have to be ready to deal with that."
Green Bay president Mark Murphy has stated he expects the kickoff to remain "on a short leash" as the league watches closely to see if the rules changes succeed in reducing injuries.
The NFL brought together 10 current special teams coaches, along with a group of former players and coaches to discuss the changes in New York City in early May. Tasker was part of that group.