NFL officials left the March Owners' meetings thinking they had come up with a new rule for kickoffs. Their plan is to copy the college rule, allowing a fair catch inside the 25 to be a touchback, putting the ball at the 25. Why do they once again want to change kickoff rules? They have seen an uptick in concussions on kickoffs since 2020, with 10 in 2020, 14 in 2021, and 19 in 2022. The most recent rule change was enacted in 2018, with touchbacks being placed at the 25. What changed around 2020 that may have caused the increase in concussions? To answer that question, I found an article, from the NFL no less, that graphically shows what we all assumed was happening, kickers are kicking short of the endzone at a higher rate.
With NFL kickers better than ever before, why are kickoffs shorter? | NFL Football Operations
In the first graph we can see the change in kickoff depth in 2021 compared to 2018-2020. During the first couple of years of the new rule, kickers continued to blast it into the endzone, giving the opponent 5 additional yards when compared to pre-2018 rules. Starting in 2021, kickers started kicking it short purposefully. The second graph shows that this was indeed purposeful as the same kicker had vastly different touchback percentages. Wishnowsky almost quadrupled his rate of "short" kickoffs. Did kicking it short of the endzone have the effect STC hoped for? Yes, opponents did have slightly worse average starting field position. The side effect? Increased risk of concussion since more kickoffs were actively returned, by necessity.
The owners seem to think by removing the potential field position benefit of kicking short it will decrease risk of concussion. However, once a few returners muff a kickoff and the coverage team recovers it, stealing a possession may become the new goal. Another rule also comes into play relating to muffs. If the receiving team recovers, they cannot advance the kickoff. The NFL counters that less than 1% of kickoffs are muffed. Smart STCs may have kickers develop difficult to handle kickoff techniques such as awkward spin or use squib kicks often to force the returner to handle the kickoff, and I don't think a squib kick can be subject to a fair catch.
What can be done to both decrease short kickoffs and probably concussion risk? Returning the touchback to the 20 would probably see the frequency of touchbacks go back up and having fewer actual returns or potential returns would likely accomplish what they are striving for. Can they use data they probably already have, i.e. concussion data from pre-2018, to show what concussion risk was toward the end of the 20 yard line touchback? I would certainly hope so.