Cardinals, Jeff Rodgers working through ‘totally different’ NFL kickoff changes

Jun 10, 2024, 2:56 PM

TEMPE — The NFL this offseason implemented new kickoff rules in an effort to maximize excitement and safety to a play that’s been a non-factor of late.

The new changes to make kickoffs impactful and safe begin on a one-year trial basis and have been received with mostly positive remarks.

They’ve also added more to the plates of special teams coordinators and their staff this offseason.

These past few months of “downtime” have been anything but for Arizona Cardinals special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers as he conceptualizes and tinkers with this new-look kickoff.

“I didn’t have a lot of expectations. This thing is totally different from anything we’ve ever coached,” Rodgers said last Monday.

“There’s still blocking and tackling going on, but the space and the angles you’re trying to get those things done are vastly different than they were before. You start with what’s created in your mind, what’s your initial thought.”

What’s different about NFL kickoffs in 2024?

Outside of standard kickoffs beginning from the 35-yard line, a lot has changed regarding the special teams play. No longer will the coverage team get a running start. Instead, players will line up at the opposing 40-yard line

The return team meanwhile can line up at least nine blockers between its 30- and 35-yard lines. Seven of those players must be on the 35-yard line, with two returners allowed inside the 20-yard line.

When the ball is in the air, no one other than the kicker and two return men can move until it hits the ground or is touched by a returner.

And that’s not all.

If the ball reaches the end zone in the air, the receiving team can opt to return the rock or take a touchback at the 30-yard line. If the ball soars out of the end zone, the ball gets placed at the 30-yard line.

But if the ball touches a returner or the ground ahead of the end zone before going in, the receiving team can return it or decide on a touchback at the 20-yard line.

Any kicks that don’t reach “the landing zone” between the receiving team’s 20-yard line and goal line will be placed at the 40-yard line, similar to a kick going out of bounds before the end zone.

Still here?

Starting from the ground up

Armed with the basic Xs and Os based on the new rules, Rodgers got to work right away with assistant Sam Sewell. But instead of putting their brains together, the duo dove into the new concepts separately as not to influence each other.

Rodgers is also leaning on his players that much more to get a better read of what makes sense and what doesn’t.

“Kick location, kick style, as things have gone on, I’ve seen, read, heard, watched plenty of other coaches talk about positional players getting involved in kicking off. You consider all of those things and then you get your players back,” Rodgers said. “There’s some trial and error that have come up. I’ve talked to plenty of our players who I’m asking to do this stuff after practice and in the meetings.

“I’ve got 20-plus years of looking at this play a certain way. I don’t know how much that stuff translates. I think I do, but when we get into the preseason and you start getting these things in pads, everything has to be reevaluated from what you’re asking the guys to do technique-wise to what you’re asking them to do schematically.”

It’s true there isn’t any prior NFL tape that can serve as a basis for Rodgers and others around the league. There is, however, still a way to see similar concepts in action.

While it’s not a carbon copy, a similar kickoff was used throughout the XFL spring league and accomplished a lot of what the NFL wants, more returns and less danger. Last season, the NFL saw 21.8% of all kicks returned, a new low for the league. On the other side, the XFL had a 97% return rate in 2023.

Regardless of the blueprint, it’s still very much a moving target.

“We’re still in the process of figuring this stuff out and we’re all going to get to Week 1 of the preseason and I’m going to watch every single kickoff, evaluate the kickoff team, evaluate the kickoff return team,” Rodgers said. “Do that in Week 2, do that in Week 3. There’s going to be some guys hiding stuff that they don’t want to show in the preseason.

“I think by and large, guys are going to do similar things, because you literally have no idea on if it’s going work or not.”

More kick returns = more action

Rodgers won’t know what will work and what won’t until games are played. Even then, there’s bound to be another learning curve for the special teams unit.

His players, however, know this: Kickoffs are back.

“I love it. It’s going to be a competition again,” pass rusher Dennis Gardeck said in May. “I don’t want to run down the field on the touchback. I think it’s really interesting and it’s cool to be a part of it in its introduction to the league because there’s a lot of uncertainty. Being able to be out there and kinda feel and grow with it, I’m excited.”

“I think it’s going to be more enjoyable to watch,” 2017 special teams Pro Bowler and safety Budda Baker added. “Just watching the XFL, the returner all he has to do is break one hole and it’s off to the races. It’s definitely going to be exciting to watch. We have a great special teams coach in Jeff Rodgers but also great special teams players as well. … It’s going to get more fun. It’s gonna get a little hectic.”

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