NEW YORK -- The NFL is finalizing a proposal to make significant changes to the kickoff, intensifying the tweaks of recent years in what might be a final attempt to salvage the most dangerous play in football.
The adjustments -- prompted largely by a group of special teams coaches who traveled to a Wednesday meeting at league headquarters -- are designed to make the kickoff "much more of a punt play," according to competition committee chairman Rich McKay. The kickoff will remain on a "short leash," according to committee member and Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy, but it appears to have survived for at least another year.
The proposed changes will be written into a formal document by next week and presented to owners for approval during their May 21-23 meetings in Atlanta. They include:
* Coverage teams would lose the 5-yard head start they previously had;
* Five players would need to be aligned on each side of the kicker;
* All wedge blocks, including two-man double teams, would be eliminated;
* Eight of the 11 return team members would be lined up within 15 yards of the restraining line, and blocking would be prohibited within those 15 yards;
* There would be no pre-kick motion;
* Onside kick rules would remain largely unchanged.
The governing idea was to reduce the space and speed of collisions that have historically occurred on kickoffs.
"With the old rule, you had guys running at each other," said Kansas City Chiefs special-teams coordinator Dave Toub, one of nine current special teams coaches in the room for the discussion. "Now, you'll have guys running with each other down the field. That makes a big difference ... because the distance between the two of them are closer. The distance between the front line and the kickoff return team is so tight that when they run down the field, it's a lot like a punt. They're running together. You're pushing people on the side and you don't have those big collisions. That was the main thing in our proposal."
The competition committee discarded some of the coaches' more radical proposals, including a rule that would place all fair-caught kickoffs at the 25-yard line. But league executives in attendance were generally encouraged by the depth of the proposed changes. Murphy, who announced in March that the kickoff would be eliminated if it could not be made safer, said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the new direction.
"I give these coaches credit," Murphy said. "To me this was a breakthrough, that they're really looking at it to make it safer."
Concussions in 2017 were five times as likely to occur on kickoffs as on other plays. A total of 71 concussions occurred on kickoffs between 2015-17, according to McKay. That figure was a dramatic outlier among NFL injury data, even after a number of changes in recent years designed to reduce returns, and prompted a scramble to address it before the 2018 season.
Murphy said that "time will tell" if the new approach pushes down the number of concussions and other injuries. McKay said he was confident that it would. Part of that assurance, McKay said, came from a related decision to prohibit players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact with an opponent. One-third of 2017 concussions on kickoffs occurred when helmets were lowered, he said.
"I would be surprised if we don't make some progress on this play," McKay said. "The changes that you are going to look at will have a positive impact."
The coaches' presentation was made largely by the Washington Redskins' Ben Kotwica. Along with Toub, Kotwica was joined at the meeting by: Baltimore Ravens special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, the Chicago Bears' Chris Tabor, the Cincinnati Bengals' Darrin Simmons, the Los Angeles Rams' John Fassel, the Miami Dolphins' Darren Rizzi, the Minnesota Vikings' Mike Priefer and the New England Patriots' Joe Judge.
Other special-teams veterans included former coaches Chuck Priefer and Bobby April. New York Giants special teams ace Michael Thomas was in attendance, as were former special teams standouts Steve Tasker, Antwaan Randle El and James Thrash. The NFL Players Association was represented by Don Davis, its senior director of player affairs.