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How the Raiders are adapting to one of the NFL’s newest rule changes

Updated May 24, 2024 - 8:10 am

Raiders special teams coach Tom McMahon looks and sounds as if he has been tucked away in a basement somewhere thinking about nothing other than the NFL’s new kickoff rules since they were announced in March.

He’d probably be just fine with it if that were actually the case.

“Great players prepare,” McMahon said Tuesday before the Raiders held an organized team activity at their Henderson facility. “So if I want to be great, I’ve got to prepare and I’ve got to come up with the answers before they get here.”

McMahon’s plan is far more a rough draft than a finished masterpiece. He’s OK with that. Adjusting to such a drastic change to a key element of the game was always going to require a bit of trial and error.

McMahon expects that to continue throughout the season. He already altered the plan he developed coming into the Raiders’ first practice because his return strategy was beating his kickoff strategy.

The returners gave McMahon and kicker Daniel Carlson advice on how things could be more effective.

“I’ll be honest with you, (that will continue for) 100 percent of the season because we’re going to steal ideas from other people, too,” McMahon said. “It’s brand new. It’s something nobody’s ever done. You’re going to steal from each other. You’re going to steal leverage from each other. I think it’ll go all the way through the Super Bowl on the last play.”

The new rules

Kickoffs will look far different this year.

The league wants to make the play relevant again after 73 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks last season. But the NFL also doesn’t want to go back to the days of coverage players racing downfield at top speed and engaging in violent collisions.

A hybrid solution was developed and will be tested on an experimental basis this season. It’s based in part on the XFL’s kickoff rules last year.

The ball will still be placed at the kicking team’s 35-yard line, but the coverage unit will no longer line up behind the kicker. The 10 other players will instead line up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line. They cannot move until the ball is caught by the returner or hits the ground. The kicker also can’t cross midfield until one of those two things happen.

Players on the receiving team must line up between their 30- and 35-yard lines. At least seven players need to have a foot on the 35. They must remain in their spot until the ball is caught or hits the ground.

The receiving team does get to designate one or two return men. They can move around at any time.

The kickoff must come down within a designated landing zone, which goes from the goal line to the receiving team’s 20-yard line. It also runs sideline to sideline.

A kick that comes up short of the landing zone in the air will be treated like a kickoff out of bounds, giving the receiving team possession at its own 40-yard line. A kick that goes through the end zone, either in the air or on a bounce, will give the receiving team possession at its 30-yard line.

A kick that lands in the end zone and doesn’t go out of play is considered live and must be downed or returned. A downed ball in the end zone will also give the receiving team possession at its 30-yard line.

Kicks that make it to the landing zone must be returned. No fair catches are allowed. Teams also cannot attempt an onside kick before the fourth quarter. They must declare they will try an onside kick before doing so.

“I’m very excited and the players are excited,” said McMahon, who pointed out there were 13 touchbacks in the Super Bowl. “Now that would be 13 balls that are returned. So returners are excited and their value is going to skyrocket.”

The Raiders attempted just 11 kickoff returns last season. They’re going to blow past that figure many times over this year.

“Before it was only your best receiver or your halfbacks that were guaranteed touches like that,” McMahon said. “And the leader in the league is probably going to go back to the early 2000s with 36 tackles on special teams, whereas it was only 16 tackles this last year. So, their value goes way up.

“As coaches, naturally we want to play every play. So, there’s going to be 10 plays a game, five kickoffs, five kickoff returns that are added into what we’re grading and what we actually have to play. Now we’re going to cover every rep, we get a chance to return every rep and we get to shed, block, tackle and teach.”

The strategy

The changes mean teams around the NFL have decisions to make in terms of how they want to approach kickoffs.

Some may even change their strategy each week based on the returners they’re facing. Some teams might not want to risk long returns and ask their kickers to skip the ball through the end zone.

McMahon, however, sees opportunities to pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory. It makes sense to try with a weapon like Carlson, who was named a first team All-Pro by The Associated Press in 2022.

“You’re not trying to get touchbacks,” McMahon said.

The best approach, at least on the surface, appears to be to attempt to kick a ball into the landing area that bounces around the field of play and is difficult to pick up. That should allow the coverage team to reach the returner before he has a chance to advance the ball.

Carlson, who has always experimented with his kickoffs, is embracing the new rules, McMahon said.

“He loves it,” McMahon said. “He’s competitive. He wants to beat the returners every single day. He loves the challenge.”

One key will be mixing things up.

McMahon said Carlson will need to place kickoffs in different parts of the landing zone throughout the course of the game so returners can’t cheat toward where they expect the ball to go.

McMahon will also be tasked with designing ways to beat the strategies other kickoff teams will employ against the Raiders. He’s getting his return men ready for all sorts of possibilities.

“What we’ve tried to do really this last week, and even in the first two weeks of the offseason program, is let Daniel try to beat our returners,” McMahon said. “And we’ve learned a lot from our returners because our returners all of a sudden are beating him, and then the next day he beats them.”

It’s an ongoing process. McMahon wouldn’t want it any other way.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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