While most of the football-watching world has been obsessed with the new, confusing helmet rules the NFL implemented this year, a different rule change has flown under the radar.

The NFL also added some more changes to kickoffs this year, citing a fear over a stat that injuries are five times more likely to occur during a kick return than any other play. 

The rule changes

As a refresher, here are the rules implemented for this season:

  1. The kicking team no longer will get a running start. Players can line up no more than one yard off the ball. Pre-kick motion is now illegal. (Previous rule: Players could line up no more than 5 yards from the ball)
  2. The kicking team must have five players on each side of the ball (Previous rule: at least four players on each side.) 
  3. At least two players must be lined up outside the yard-line numbers on the field. At least two must be between the numbers the hash mark.  
  4. At least eight players on the return team must be in a 15-yard “setup zone” prior to the kickoff. Only three players can remain outside that zone. (Previous rule: Players on the return team could line up anywhere behind their restraining line) 
  5. Until the ball is touched or hits the ground, no player on the receiving team may cross its restraining line or initiate a block against the kicking team in the 15-yard area from the kicking team’s restraining line. Most often, that means from the 35-yard line to the 50-yard line. (Previous rule: players on the receiving team could move beyond their restraining line and block after the ball was kicked). 
  6. No wedge blocks are permitted. That’s when two blockers stayed shoulder-to-shoulder with the intent of creating space for the returner. (Previous rule: two-man wedges were allowed). 
  7. A ball is ruled dead for a touchback if it lands in the end zone. A returner doesn’t have to down the ball to be a touchback. (Previous rule: the ball had to be downed by the return team).

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What it looks like

Here’s what a typical kickoff looked like in 2017, with players getting a running start:

And here is how it has looked during the 2018 preseason:

The impact

We aren’t privy to the same injury statistics as the NFL, so time will tell how much health is impacted. Cardinals running back D.J. Foster tore is ACL and MCL against Dallas during a kick return, but the injury occurred after he slowed down and got blocked by a pair of Cowboys – something that could have happened on just about any play. 

From a pure numbers standpoint, the rule changes don’t seem to have impacted the game all that much, as teams have adapted.

In the 2017 preseason, the Cardinals averaged 26.5 yards per return on 10 total returns.

So far in the 2018 preseason, the Cardinals are averaging 24.67 yards per return on 6 total returns.

The Saints have the best average in 2018 with 29.33 yards on 9 returns. Last preseason, the 49ers led with a 31.45 average on 11 returns, though that included a touchdown.

The top team without a touchdown last year was Tampa Bay, with 27.71 yards on 7 returns. There were three kickoff-return touchdowns in 2017, and none so far in 2018 – going against conventional wisdom that the new rules would create more space and, possibly, more scoring.