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‘Who knows what it's going to look like?' Eagles unwrapping new kickoff rule

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The message from Eagles special teams coach Michael Clay when it comes to the NFL’s new kickoff rule is this:

“We don’t know.”

What will it look like? What kind of returners will work best? How will they defend it? How will it work?

“We don’t know.”

The NFL has overhauled kickoffs going into the 2024 season as a one-year experiment to try and reduce injuries in what has traditionally been a dangerous play while also adding some juice to a play that had become virtually meaningless.

The play will be similar to what the XFL used to use but with some new twists.

“It's going to be exciting and interesting all at the same time because you really don't know what to expect because nobody's really even seen it,” Clay said. “Even from an XFL aspect, there's still a lot of nuances from the XFL rules, what they implemented, to what we're trying to get done here in the NFL.

“It's an exciting time. It's a lot of retraining for these veteran guys who are so used to NFL rules, so just learning it from the ground up.”

The NFL’s operations department issued these guidelines that explain the new kickoff rule in simple terms.

Basically, there’s a landing zone from the receiving team’s end zone to the 20 and any kick that lands in the landing zone must be returned. Any kick that lands short of the landing zone the receiving team gets the ball at the 40. And there’s a so-called setup zone from the receiving team’s 30 to 35 where at least nine receiving players must line up. The ball will still be kicked from the 35, but players from the kicking team will line up at the receiving team’s 40-yard-line, and the 10 kicking team players other than the kicker can’t move until the ball hits the ground or hits in the landing zone or end zone, and the players in the setup zone can’t move either until the same point. Up to two receiving players may set up in the landing zone and can move at any point before, during or after the kick.

“The great thing about it, 31 other teams are in the same boat,” Clay said. “We have spent a good amount of time on it - not taking away from other aspects - because, obviously, it's a new rule, you have to get used to it.  

“I think that's the cool thing about the special teams community in the NFL, everyone respects each other at a high level and bounces ideas off each other. ‘Hey, what do you see here?’ How do you see it from peers and other aspects of the league?”

It’s one thing to understand the rules. It’s another to try and figure out how these new kickoff plays will evolve.

“Who knows what the style is going to look like?” Clay said. “What we're really trying to do is to eat up as many yards as possible going north and south. But going into this whole thing, we don't know what it's going to look like. Everybody else doesn't know what it's going to look like.

“It's going to be trial and error. It's going to be, ‘Hey, let's see what it looks like in a live setting. … Hey, we don't like this, let's try it again. We do like this. Let's keep this and add to this.’ 

“It's going to be fun. It's going to be interesting and fun all in the same while to make sure that we, as a special teams unit, help this team out moving forward.”

Clay said he and his staff are spending as much time figuring out how to defend returns as they are figuring out what their own returns are going to look like.

“When you really peel back this whole thing, it's still kickoff, kickoff return,” he said. “‘OK, you're a non-returner? We've still got to be fundamentally sound when we're blocking.’ 

“We do have a couple of good returners back there. We have to use this new kickoff return as a weapon. Vice versa on kickoff coverage, you've still got to go cover these opponent teams, these opposite teams of stopping them with some good returners.”

Clay isn’t thinking in terms of whether he likes or doesn’t like the new rules. The play is in for at least 2024 and it’s just a matter of understanding it, figuring out what returners and other personnel will work best and teaching it until the NFL tells teams otherwise.

“It's going to be exciting and interesting all at the same time because you really don't know what to expect because nobody's really even seen it,” he said. “It's an exciting time. It's a lot of retraining for these veteran guys who are so used to NFL rules.

“I'm all for whatever they want to give out there. Whatever the NFL is ready to pull on board, we're ready to adapt. That's what special teams is. It's all about adapting to new things, whether it's a roster change or new rules, we're ready to adapt in the special teams world.”

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