The NFL announced a new rule change on Tuesday that will have a big change on the way the game is played and will change things for the Green Bay Packers. The rule is similar to something already in place in college football and it is designed to reduce injuries. It also makes a fundamental change to one aspect of the game.
The NFL announced that on kickoffs, the receiving team can signal for a fair catch any time the ball is inside their own 25 yard-line and the ball will be brought to the 25. This means that a ball that is caught in the field of play can be fair caught, not just a kickoff that lands in the end zone. It will likely reduce the number of kick returns in the game and the league office hopes it will reduce injuries.
This will change things for kick returners for sure. Packers return specialist Keisean Nixon, who was named All Pro for his performance last year, had a humorous response to the new rules change.
Lol Fair Catch What’s That?
— K9 (@keiseannixon) May 23, 2023
Kick returners will now have more pressure to make fair catches. Unless they consistently get the ball past their own 25, the fair catch will be the right choice. There will likely be many fewer kick returns and that aspect of the game, which has been a big potential game changer in the past, will be less important going forward.
That won’t likely stop Nixon from continuing to run back most of his kicks. The former South Carolina star is fearless when it comes to returning kickoffs and won’t likely call too many fair catches.
The rules change will also change the game for kickers. Until now, NFL kickers had two ideal goals on kickoffs. The first was to kick the ball deep into the end zone or out of the end zone to force a touchback and prevent any return. The alternative strategy was to kick the ball higher and somewhere inside the 10-yard line. That would allow the coverage unit a chance to get downfield and pin the return specialist down and prevent him from getting to the 25. Kickers would sometimes kick the ball near the sideline when doing that to limit the ability of the return specialist to get enough room to break a long return.
That strategy will now change as kicking the ball deep into the end zone will no longer be as critical.
This may also change the way special teams coaches look at their kickers. Last year, Mason Crosby was often criticized for his short kickoffs. His touchback percentage in 2022 was merely 20.3, one of the lowest in the league. Just a year before, his touchback percentage was 45.7, a much more respectable number.
With the rules change, the Packers may find it less problematic to bring back Crosby next season as the importance of blasting kickoffs out of the end zone is much less critical. The Packers released kicker Parker White earlier this week, leaving sixth-round pick Anders Carlson as the only kicker in camp. But if deep kickoffs are no longer as big an advantage, it wouldn’t hurt the Packers to try to bring back Crosby to compete for the kicking job.
Of course, the NFL announced another rules change this week that is not positive for the fans. The Packers were one of eight teams to vote against the proposal, but it passed 24-8.
The league will now be able to flex Thursday night games so a game originally scheduled for a Sunday can be moved to a Thursday night and visa versa. This certainly creates inconveniences for people traveling to games who need to make plane and hotel reservations and need to take days off from work to travel to games.
There are limitations in place. Amazon Prime can only flex games in Weeks 13 through 17 and needs to give 28 days’ notice to the league. Only two games can be flexed all season and no team can appear on Thursday Night Football more than twice in a season.
The Packers are unlikely to be affected this season. They are only scheduled to appear once on Thursday Night Football as of now and that is in Week 4 against the Lions. There is still a chance one of the Packers late season games could be flexed to a Thursday night but since two of the Packers late-season games are already on Sunday night (although that can be flexed as well), that is unlikely.
The Thursday night flex rule gives less certainty to ticket buying fans and players and is another example of the league catering to broadcast providers over fans and the safety of the players.
Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers
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