Analysis | The NFL kick return is dead. Long live the kick return.

During the most fraught week an NFL coach could face, Sean McDermott daydreamed about kick returns. His Buffalo Bills were preparing to play six days after safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and was revived on the field. As McDermott made his final game plans in January, he thought, “Wouldn’t it be special if we could take back that opening kickoff?”

The kickoff holds a distinct place within America’s sporting panorama. Toe meets leather. The football floats skyward, hovering like an oblong balloon. Anticipation crests. What happens next could be nothing — or it could be an electrifying dozen or so seconds that change a game, a season, a career.

In that January game, Buffalo’s Nyheim Hines caught the opening kickoff at the 4-yard line, darted right, wove between tacklers and sprinted the entirety of the sideline. Bills fans roared. Players placed hands on heads in disbelief. “This is storybook!” Jim Nantz gasped on the CBS broadcast.

It was one of the indelible moments of any recent NFL season. And it was the precise kind of play the NFL is trying to eliminate.

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On Tuesday at the league meetings, the NFL hastened the kick return’s spiral into irrelevance and toward its presumptive demise. Owners voted to turn fair catches made inside the 25-yard line on kickoffs into touchbacks, allowing and incentivizing returners to wave their hands in the air in lieu of trying to dance through and outrun coverage teams. The rule is in effect for the 2023 season and could become permanent after that.

In the name of player safety, specifically reducing concussions the league says occur disproportionately on special teams plays, the NFL wants the number of kick returns reduced. Commissioner Roger Goodell personally campaigned for the rule even as special teams coaches mounted resistance. The impact of Tuesday’s rule change remains to be seen, but the NFL sent a clear message: The kick return is an endangered play.

“We want to keep it in the game,” NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay told reporters. “I don’t know that we know we can keep it in the game. We’ve just got to find ways to make the play safer.”

The NFL can declare it is making football safer, but it is impossible to make football safe. Perhaps kick returns are more dangerous than the average play — 19 concussions occurred on them last year, per the league — but the average play is still a symphony of violence. (The NFL’s assertion that it prioritizes safety rings hollow after owners approved the ability to flex Thursday night games late in the season, possibly creating an additional truncated week between games for some teams.) Eliminating the kick return is possibly a way to improve player safety and definitely a way to give the appearance of caring about improving player safety.

And so the days seem numbered for a play that has swung Super Bowls and created borderline Hall of Famers.

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Brian Mitchell entered the league as a fifth-round draft pick who played quarterback at Southwestern Louisiana. Joe Gibbs made him a returner, and Mitchell took the first preseason kick he fielded 92 yards for a touchdown. He would retire as the all-time leader in return yards and one of the greatest players in Washington history.

Mitchell may be widely considered the best kick returner ever if not for Devin Hester, who for a decade made kickoffs in Chicago appointment viewing. As a rookie, Hester returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, fueling a run to Super Bowl XLI. Once there, Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy, against his better judgment, called for a deep boot to Hester on the opening kick. Hester returned it for a touchdown, a vintage display of sharp cuts, powerful strides and breakaway speed.

The Bears would lose to Peyton Manning’s Colts, but an earlier Super Bowl result hinged on a kick return. In the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXI, the New England Patriots slashed the Green Bay Packers’ lead to 27-21 in the third quarter, gathering momentum for a potential massive upset. Green Bay’s Desmond Howard caught the ensuing kickoff and returned it 99 yards, at the time the longest play in Super Bowl history. Neither team would score again. Howard — despite Reggie White’s three sacks — became the first (and still only) special teamer to be named Super Bowl MVP.

Players can make rosters and launch careers not only by returning kicks but by tackling returners. If you want to see crazed effort and athletic desperation at its apex, watch the oddly numbered players chasing the ball on special teams during a preseason game.

Steve Tasker is on the Bills’ Wall of Fame almost solely for his ability as a gunner, the first man down the field on kicks and punts. Matthew Slater has been a Patriots captain for years and may someday join New England’s Hall of Fame despite playing exclusively on special teams. As the number of returns shrinks, it will become harder for teams to justify using a roster spot on an exclusive special teamer. Football grows less rich with the subtle skills that they mastered phased out of the game.

Even Tasker, though, accepts the inevitability of the kick return’s diminished role. From his perch as a broadcaster, he has watched the NFL minimize special teams in its quest to decrease concussions. He believes the league understands what drives fan interest, and that if kick returns are sacrificed, it will not harm the league’s cultural ubiquity.

“What it looks like as a finished product, one of the reasons the NFL is what it is is because it’s never been a finished product,” Tasker said Tuesday in a phone conversation. “Even as a former special teams player, this game has continued to grow because it has evolved in real time.”

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The NFL has endeavored for years to make kickoff returns extinct. It first tried in 2016, when it moved touchbacks from the 20 to the 25, hoping more returners would stay in the end zone. Over time, teams realized high kicks near, but not in, the end zone could pin a team inside the 25. “I don’t think they understood that teams would kick it short and cover,” said SumerSports’ Eric Eager, a leading football analytics expert.

When the league outlawed a running start for kickoff teams, it led kickers to blast more touchbacks. Last year, teams averaged 22.5 yards per kick return. Returns will still happen but probably in a situational fashion. Teams such as the Atlanta Falcons (with Cordarrelle Patterson) and Packers (Keisean Nixon) may be more aggressive in taking the ball out, and most teams could try for a huge return when down late in games. Eager said the data would probably support teams taking the touchback on kicks that don’t reach the end zone.

“This will finally be the rule that effectively eliminates a lot of kickoffs,” he said.

Coaches will still try to find a loophole. Those with confidence in their coverage teams may instruct kickers to boot low, skipping kickoffs. “You’ll have some teams that will probably put the ball on the ground and not put it in the air, so they can’t fair catch it,” Tasker said. “They will tinker with different strategies about how to get around it. If there’s an edge to be had, they’re going to find it.”

In whatever fashion it occurs, this rule change will alter the kickoff as we know it. Then again, as Tasker pointed out, that has been happening for years. In that January game, Hines ultimately returned two kicks for touchdowns as the Bills beat the Patriots. In Tasker’s view, one of 272 NFL games last season was decided by kickoff returns.

The NFL may have put the play on life support Tuesday, but its condition had been worsening for a while.

“For lack of a better way to put it, kickoff has become ceremonial in some games,” Tasker said. “Right now, they’ve evolved from it as we know it anyway.”

Mark Maske in Eagan, Minn., contributed to this report.

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