Jay Harbaugh leading Seattle Seahawks quest to solve new kickoff rules

RENTON, WASHINGTON - JUNE 03: Special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh of the Seattle Seahawks looks on during practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center on June 03, 2024 in Renton, Washington.  (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

The need to have a good special teams coordinator may never be more important in the NFL than it will be this season.

Massive changes to the structure of kickoffs in the NFL have created a brand-new play for coaches to innovate around this fall. And the teams that succeed in understanding the new rules the best will have a significant advantage, especially early in the season.

That task falls to Jay Harbaugh with the Seattle Seahawks.

"We're having a blast," Harbaugh said on Monday about the quest to solve the new system. "We're really excited about it. It's totally new for everybody, and it's just cool to see the different ideas people have and being able to take what we know from the old world of kickoff and kick return, and see what's still true and what's not true. It's just a fun process as you go, just trying different things and realizing, 'Hey, this might not be what we thought.' It's organized trial and error."

Kickoff returns had decreased significantly in recent years due to attempts by the NFL to limit the number of injuries sustained on those plays. The byproduct was fewer returns as they became less incentivized, creating a play with very little action more often than not. In fact, the NFL saw the lowest kickoff return rates in league history last season.

While the kickoff will remain from the 35-yard line, almost everything else about the play has evolved. The remaining 10 players from the kicking team will move across midfield to the return team's 40-yard line. Nine players from the receiving team will line up between the 30- and 35-yard lines with two players able to set up as returners closer to the goal line.

Kickoffs must land between the 20-yard line and the goal line, and any kick that lands in that landing zone must be returned.

The play carries many similarities to the kickoff structure adopted by the XFL/UFL in the last few years. However, the NFL's kickoff rules aren't an exact copy of the XFL version.

"We looked at it quite a bit, the XFL stuff from last year, just because it's the closest thing that we have to compare to," Harbaugh said. "And when you do look at it, the spacing of the play is different, which you guys know, we're five yards further back. And then the restraints of where the return team can align are different.

"It's pretty different, but still valuable to look at."

Kicks that don't reach the landing zone, and kicks that go out of bounds will be placed at the 40-yard line. Kicks that fly into the end zone and are downed by the receiving team start at the 30-yard line, and kicks that land in the landing zone, bounce into the end zone, and are then downed come out to the 20-yard line.

"I think you'll see some people that will push the envelope and get a little crazier than others and see what you can do," Harbaugh said. "I think there'll be other people that start more vanilla and test the waters, as with most things. I think that you'll see kind of things even out with something that's in time when we all become more familiar with it, where it's generally somewhat predictable just of what you're going to see similar as offense and defense."

Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub noted last week that they saw kickers involved in tackles at a significantly increased rate in the XFL version of the play. Toub said he believed it to be a 25-40 percent increase in the amount of tackles kickers were involved in under a similar system.

Toub said they were considering using safety Justin Reid – who was a kicker in high school and has served as their emergency kicker – as their option on kickoffs in an attempt to keep Harrison Butker from being involved in more tackles.

Harbaugh noted there is indeed logic to that approach and it is an idea they are kicking around, too, though he was quick to point out several potential drawbacks as well.

"The numbers would suggest that the kickers will make more tackles just because there's going to be more returns," Harbaugh said. "And there's some numbers that would say that with this style of play, that they're more apt to be involved in a tackle. And as for an alternative position player, subbing in for them, you could see it. If a guy can do it, then it's going to have a chance to be really good. But you got to be pretty good to be able to kick off a bunch of times and keep the ball in the landing zone every time, because it's a fairly steep price if you miss it."

Unlike Reid, Harbaugh said they also aren't sure they'd have an obvious candidate for such a role with the Seahawks. He also said using another key player in that role could have other consequences as well.

"I think doing that is exciting, but it's to be able to do it over and over and over and not miss the landing zone is not quite as easy as people would think," he said. "I think that that's a great idea and if you have a guy that can do it, it makes a lot of sense. 

"But there's also then the downside of that player now has a very unnatural movement that puts a ton of strain on your body and adding that to his workload on top of being running back or a defensive back or whatever it might be. That player has to handle that workload too. It's interesting. It's all fun conversations and there's a lot of smart people in this league and really talented players and it'll be fun to see how it shakes out."

It's not often that new ground is forged in the NFL game. The Miami Dolphins unleashed the "Wildcat" formation on the New England Patriots in 2008 and sent defenses scrambling to figure out how to defend direct snaps to running backs. Washington, Seattle and San Francisco all took advantage of mobile quarterbacks in 2012 to bring the read-option running attack to the pro game as defenses again struggled to adjust initially.

The changes to kickoff rules aren't just one team innovating a new challenge, but a whole new play style that hasn't been seen before. All 32 teams have an entire offseason to devise their best designs of how to take advantage of the new format.

"Hopefully it's going to be a really fun football play," head coach Mike Macdonald said. "I think that's the whole spirit behind what everybody was trying to do. I think for the most part, we got a really good chance to make it a really exciting play, so that's the way we see it.

"It's something that we're trying to stay with it. I don't want to say experimentation, but that's kind of what it is. What works in terms of alignments and how we can play with things, who can block what, the schemes. It'll be interesting to see because we're not sharing secrets on how we're going to operate, and we'll have to adapt when the league starts to declare early in the season."


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