The ongoing battle to reduce the number of concussions in NFL games – specifically from the kickoff – could see the organization copy the safer playbook originated by the XFL.
Reports suggest that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has met with XFL officials to discuss kickoff rules, while Rich McKay – the NFL’s competition committee chair – has admitted that ‘creative solutions’ are being sought, including an adoption of XFL rules, to bring down the number of head injuries that returners are suffering.
It’s high time too, as the NFL’s previous approach – to try and tempt franchises not to return a kickoff – simply isn’t sustainable for the competitiveness of the sport in the long run.
Same, But Different
In theory, the 2023/24 NFL season is shaping up like any other.
The Chiefs once again lead the way in NFL betting as they look to become the first team since the Patriots in 2005 to win back-to-back editions of the Super Bowl. The Eagles and the Bills are amongst those expected to give Kansas their toughest challenge.
For the most part, the NFL rulebook will remain the same too, although it’s possible that changes to the kickoff protocol – which are being driven at the franchise level as well as amongst NFL officials – could be introduced in time for the new campaign.
The data is alarming: players are three times as likely to suffer a concussion when receiving a kickoff as they are in any other offensive or defensive situation – at times, the receiver is almost a sitting duck for their onrushing opponents to hit.
The NFL’s ‘head buried in the sand’ approach of disincentivizing kickoff returns, courtesy of the ‘fair catch’ remit that spots the ball on the 25-yard line regardless of where it’s fielded, is expected to drive concussion numbers down – but only as a result of fewer returns being made. That’s hardly the dynamic solution that football needs.
A New Way
The XFL does not have the same problem, it must be said.
With none of the kicking team allowed to tackle the returner until they have received the ball, it’s no wonder that injuries suffered during the kickoff phase of play are much rarer in XFL – if nothing else, the receiver has time to brace themselves for impact while in the correct stance and posture.
The upshot? 97% of kickoffs were returned during the 2020 XFL season, compared to just 38% in the NFL in 2022.
Back in February 2022, Dwayne Johnson agreed a strategic partnership of sorts that would see XFL act as a ‘petri dish’ of experimentation for the NFL. From trialing new rules and innovations to testing new equipment and offering officials a chance to develop in a professional football environment, the work done by XFL can only have a positive knock-on effect on the sport as a whole.
And if that helps the NFL to introduce kickoff rules that protect the welfare of the receiver while maintaining the pace of play, that can only be considered a good thing.
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