Some of the NFL’s most electrifying moments of the past two decades have occurred on one of its most dangerous plays: the kickoff.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Devin Hester, and Terrence McGee all made a living on this phase three play, a play that the league seems adamant about removing completely from the sport. Over the past 15 years, the NFL has diligently worked towards this goal with four key rule changes aimed at reducing the number of kickoff returns that occur each season.
- 3-Man Wedge Banned (2009): The primary strategy used by special teams coaches for a century would now result in a 15-yard penalty.
- Kickoff Moved from 30 to 35-yard Line (2011): The move forward would result in a single season drop of 0 kick returns per game in 2010 to 5.4 in 2011.
- Touchback Moved from 20 to 25-yard Line (2016): By 2018, the NFL would experience its first sub-1000 kick return season (970) since 1982 (975), with 1982 being the season affectionately known as the strike-shortened season.
- Fair Catch Results in a Touchback (2023): TBD
With the latest change being announced on May 23, 2023, the number of kickoff returns is expected to drop even further this upcoming season. Teams can now execute a touchback on any ball fielded within the 25-yard line, calling into question the efficacy of the short-kick strategy. That just so happens to be the same strategy the Buffalo Bills have mastered as one of the NFL’s premier kickoff coverage units. Over the past two seasons, the Bills have forced opposing teams to return kicks at the fifth-highest rate (2.70 KR/GP) while maintaining a Yards per Kick Return of 19.2, ranking first in the NFL.
The expectation is kickoffs will now trend toward a once-per-game event as the players who excel at this specialized skillset are further devalued. The greats, like Steve Tasker and Matthew Slater, seem destined to become relics of the past, a la the T-Formation, while the future of special teams players is now in limbo. That’s not an insignificant number of players either; in 2022 there were 48 players across the league who met the criteria of special teams specialists. The Bills rostered two such players in Tyler Matakevich and Taiwan Jones, with Siran Neal appearing in just 11 too many defensive snaps to qualify.
There were 48 Special Teams Specialists* in the #NFL in 2022.— Hänsel (@UberHansen) March 18, 2023
Percentage of Teams with 2+ on their roster:
◾️87% Win% >.500
◾️86% Playoff Teams
◾️33% Non-Playoff Teams
◾️24% Win % <=.500
◾️17% Original Top-10 Pick
◾️0% Original Top-5 Pick
* Defined as a player who played >60%…
What effects this has on roster decisions throughout the summer remain to be seen, but players relying on their special teams play to make a 53-man roster just saw that path narrowed. Rookies like Justin Shorter, who excelled on kickoff coverage (135 NCAA Snaps), and Tyrell Shavers, who impressed as a blocker on kick returns (103 NCAA Snaps), now have a much more difficult path to making the Bills’ 53-man roster. It also places Nyheim Hines’ 53-man role on the Bills in jeopardy as his pass-catching skillset may be viewed as redundant to Deonte Harty, with his RB3 role possibly relegated to Latavius Murray. Lastly, to the chagrin of some and delight of others, it should afford more opportunities for players like Khalil Shakir to be active on a consistent basis and others including Kingsley Jonathan, Shane Ray, and Nick Broeker a better chance at making the Bills final roster.
Still, the most recent alteration to one of the NFL’s most iconic plays seems to signify the end of an era. It’s all too likely that in the coming years, kickoffs will be done away with completely with teams simply starting with the ball at the 25-yard line at the start of games, halves, and after scores. Moments like the Saints’ surprise onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV, Devin Hester’s kickoff return TD to start Super Bowl XLI, and Terrence McGee’s insane dance around 82-yard return against the Saints in 2005 are just historical moments in a sport that clearly has no interest in repeating that history. It’s what feels like an oddly emotional end to a play that has produced some of the most emotional moments in the history of the NFL.