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Seahawks’ Harbaugh: How they’re adjusting to NFL’s new kickoff rules

Jun 4, 2024, 9:57 AM

Seattle Seahawks Dee Eskridge Cardinals 2022...

Dee Eskridge of the Seattle Seahawks returns a kickoff against the Cardinals in 2022. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

(Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Like every team across the NFL this offseason, the Seattle Seahawks have been busy developing strategies for how to approach the league’s new kickoff rules.

Those plans might have to be written in pencil.

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Given how significant the rule changes are, it could be difficult for teams to know exactly how the new kickoffs will play out until games get underway. Once teams are able to actually see and experience the new kickoff in action, first-year Seahawks special teams coach Jay Harbaugh thinks there could be a lengthy period of teams tinkering, adjusting and borrowing ideas from across the league.

“Everyone’s gonna be eagerly turning on film of everybody else to see what are they doing, what different ideas have people had, what works, what doesn’t work,” Harbaugh said after Monday’s OTA practice at Seahawks headquarters in Renton. “And so I think you’ll see probably for five, six, seven, eight weeks, some pretty rapid changes.”

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Until then, the Seahawks and other teams are left to brainstorm ideas, experiment with different strategies and try to predict the intricacies of how the new kickoff will actually look on the field.

“It’s totally new for everybody and just cool to see what different ideas people have, and being able to take what we know from the old world of kickoffs and kick returns and see what’s still true (and) what’s not true,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just a fun process as you go trying different things and then realizing ‘Hey, this might not be what we thought.’ It’s organized trial and error.”

The new rules

The NFL approved the new kickoff rules in March with the aim of increasing safety and reviving the kick return.

Under the new rules, the ball will still be kicked from the 35-yard line. However, the coverage team will line up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line and won’t be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or is caught by the returner. By significantly shortening the distance coverage players are sprinting downfield, the hope is there will be fewer of the high-impact collisions that made kickoffs such a dangerous play.

Meanwhile, for the receiving team, at least nine players must line up between their own 30- and 35-yard lines. Those players also can’t move until the ball lands or is caught. The receiving team is allowed a maximum of two returners, who can move at any time.

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To discourage teams from kicking the ball into the end zone, touchbacks will now be spotted at the 30-yard line instead of the 25-yard line. Also, if a kick lands short of the 20-yard line, it will be treated like a kickoff out of bounds and the ball will be spotted at the 40-yard line.

With teams now incentivized to kick the ball into the landing zone – the area between the goal line and 20-yard line – the NFL estimates that about 50-60% of kickoffs will be returned. Under the old rules last season, that number was just 22%.

“I think it’s really cool,” said Harbaugh, who coached special teams at the University of Michigan for the past nine seasons under his father Jim Harbaugh. “We’re pumped about it. … There’s so many great people, coaches and players that have made a great living in the special teams phase. So for that segment of the game and the people that love that part of the game, it’s exciting. There’s more opportunity to show what you can do to separate yourself and to make an impact on the outcome.”

The strategy

With touchbacks disincentivized, there figures to be an emphasis on kickers aiming their kicks away from returners so that the ball hits the ground before they can catch it. For one, that typically would make the kick harder to field. Also, with kick returners allowed to start running once the ball hits the ground, that would give them a head start on chasing down the returner.

“You’re really not rewarded for hang time anymore, so any ball that can hit (the ground), it kind of creates artificial hang time,” Harbaugh said.

On the flip side, with kickers focused on aiming their kicks, there’s speculation that teams could use two returners.

“With the style of kicks that you’re gonna see, it could be fairly difficult for one guy to be able to get to all the kicks, in terms of where the kicker is going to be putting the ball and the incentives for the kickoff team to get the ball on the ground,” Harbaugh said. “So I think maybe you’ll see more teams having two (returners) back there.”

Some have even suggested the idea of a non-kicker handling the kickoff duties, since kickers likely will be put in more tackling situations. Harbaugh said the Seahawks have considered that idea, but also pointed out the challenges of actually implementing it.

“It’s a fairly steep price if you miss (the landing zone),” Harbaugh said. “It’ll be interesting to see. I think you’ll see some (non-kickers kick), and then I think eventually those guys will mishit the ball, because it’s not quite as easy as it looks to do. … It’s a very small margin of error, so there’s certainly a risk-reward.”

Different personnel?

With a much shorter distance to run for both the coverage and return teams, top-end speed may not be quite as important on kickoffs. As a result, it’s possible that kickoffs could feature more linemen and tight ends.

“The guy that just didn’t quite have the ideal top-end speed before, but has the arm length and the physicality and the decision-making as a defensive player, I think that guy could become more relevant now,” Harbaugh said. “Maybe you see more tight ends, more pass rushers, bigger bodies. I think you will see some more D-linemen on the field.”

Harbaugh said it’s also possible that more starters or fringe starters could be involved on the new kickoffs.

“Maybe you didn’t want to have them out there on the field before (under the old rules) and having rep after rep of getting the 20, 21, 22 miles an hour,” Harbaugh said. “Well, now it’s a little bit different play and it’s probably not quite as taxing, so I think you just could see a little bit of shift of who’s available for the play.”

‘It’s still football’

As different as the new kickoff rules are, Harbaugh said there’s still plenty that will remain the same.

“It’s a new setup, there’s new parameters, the spacing is different, but it’s still football,” Harbaugh said. “… The block destruction, the awareness of how far am I from the ball, what decisions should I make as a coverage guy, the fundamentals in the return game of great feet, great hand placement, great eyes, leverage – all those things are still true. So it’s easy to get carried away with what’s different, but we think you’ll be able to make a lot of hay just understanding and banking on the things that have stayed the same.”

Harbaugh said some of the Seahawks’ veteran special team players have provided great input throughout the process.

“They’re tremendous resources for us,” Harbaugh said. “So as we  experiment, try things, implement techniques and plays and run them, they’re really, really great for us as sounding boards: ‘Hey, what do you think about this? Do you think this is possible?’ Some of the feedback that they’ve given us is great, and that will only increase as we get further down the road.

“There’s a lot of smart people in this league and really talented players,” he added. “It’ll be fun to see how it shakes out.”

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