Radical New NFL Kickoff Rules Should Benefit Packers’ Keisean Nixon

The NFL approved radical rules changes to resurrect the kickoff return. Those changes should give All-Pro Keisean Nixon more room to operate.
Packers All-Pro kick returner Keisean Nixon.
Packers All-Pro kick returner Keisean Nixon. / Kevin Sabitus/GettyImages
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – As the NFL considered radical new rules for kickoffs – changes that were approved at the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday – Green Bay Packers All-Pro returner Keisean Nixon had something to say.

“Go ahead and approve” the change, he posted on X, “and Ima go back to back to back.”

In what will be a one-year trial, the NFL turned to a modified version of the kickoff play used in the XFL. The changes should greatly increase the numbers of returns around the league and provide even more opportunities for Nixon, the back-to-back All-Pro returner.

“Yeah, I definitely want (that),” coach Matt LaFleur told reporters on Tuesday, shortly before the changes were approved. “I think the kickoff – I don’t know what football would be without it. You definitely want it to be part of the game.

“Certainly, when you have a returner as dynamic as Keisean, the more opportunities he can get to return, I think it could set us up. Now, it’s just not only on Keisean. You’ve got to have the guys in front of him making the blocks and setting it up in that regard. Yeah, his value, whether it’s at nickel or as a returner, I think is really high.”

Under the old rules, the kickoff team aligned at the 34 with the ball kicked from the 35. That gave the coverage team a huge running start to get to the kickoff returner. That led to a lot of touchbacks on what had become a “ceremonial” play. It also led to a lot of high-speed collisions – the type the league has been trying to weed out of the game as much as possible.

The change will be a game-changer. The ball will continue to be kicked at the 35. However, the kick-coverage team will align at the return team’s 40. The kick-return team will align at the 35. The return team will have nine players in the “setup zone,” which is between the 30- and 35-yard line, with at least seven of the players touching the 35.

That leaves two returners inside the 20 to field the kick. Or, as the Packers will try to do, one player back deep to serve as another blocker for Nixon.

Only the kicker and returners will be allowed to move before the ball hits the ground or is touched by one of the returners.

The changes will give the returner more time before the coverage unit arrives. Moreover, those kick-coverage players should be easier to target and block because they will be at a stand-still at the return team’s 40 rather than having 25 yards to reach max speed.

The touchback has been moved from the 25-yard line to the 30.

“This is our chance to keep special teams in the game,” NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay said Monday. “Special teams has been a part of the game forever. And, if you lose the kickoff, in our mind, you really pretty much eliminated special teams and put it on a punt play.”

The kickoff had been lost, at least for most teams. Nixon led the NFL with 30 kickoff returns last season. Only one other player had 20. In 2022, 18 players had more than 20 returns. More than three-fourths of kickoffs last season resulted in touchbacks.

“I think it would be nice to get the kickoff return back into the game,” general manager Brian Gutekunst told reporters on Monday. “How we do that, I think, is up for debate. There’s a lot of that going on right now. We’re working through that right now, but I would like to see that play return. It was kind of a non-existent play.”


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Bill Huber

BILL HUBER

Bill Huber, who has covered the Green Bay Packers since 2008, is the publisher of Packer Central, a Sports Illustrated channel. E-mail: packwriter2002@yahoo.com History: Huber took over Packer Central in August 2019. Twitter: https://twitter.com/BillHuberNFL Background: Huber graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he played on the football team, in 1995. He worked in newspapers in Reedsburg, Wisconsin Dells and Shawano before working at The Green Bay News-Chronicle and Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1998 through 2008. With The News-Chronicle, he won several awards for his commentaries and page design. In 2008, he took over as editor of Packer Report Magazine, which was founded by Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke, and PackerReport.com. In 2019, he took over the new Sports Illustrated site Packer Central, which he has grown into one of the largest sites in the Sports Illustrated Media Group.