NFL execs aiming to outlaw hip-drop tackle, revise kickoff rules

The NFL’s competition committee and NFL teams have finalized their proposed rule changes for the 2024 season. The proposals will be voted on by the NFL’s owners during the annual league meeting from March 24 to 27 in Orlando. All together, 10 rule change proposals will be voted on, and each will need at least 24 “yes” votes to pass.

Of the potential rule changes brought forth, the most controversial would outlaw the use of the “hip-drop tackle”. The rule would make it so that a 15-yard penalty is enforced if a player grabs a runner with both hands/arms while attempting to make a tackle and “unweights himself by swiveling and dropping his hips and/or lower body, landing on and trapping the runner’s leg(s) at or below the knee.”

“The injury rate is 20 to 25 percent higher on that particular tackle,” Atlanta Falcons CEO Rich McKay said Thursday. “It’s hard to see all of the elements of the hip-drop in one continuous action, so the No. 1 thing we have to do is get a rule in the books that we can enforce on Monday and try to get the technique out of the game.”

The NFLPA released a statement Wednesday opposing the potential rule change.

“The players oppose any attempt by the NFL to implement a rule prohibiting a ‘swivel hip-drop’ tackle,” the statement read. “We call on the NFL, again, to reconsider implementing this rule.”

The NFL has made it pretty clear that isn’t going to happen.

“This is something that we have to remove,” NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said Thursday.

Another proposal would bring a significant change to the league’s kickoff rules. Last year, the owners approved a modification that enabled teams to call for a fair catch anywhere within the 25-yard line and receive the ball at the 25, essentially making it a touchback. The change was made primarily to reduce injuries on kickoff returns. It dropped the kickoff return rate to just 22 percent in 2023, down from 38 percent in 2022.

“We have been able to make the play more of a non-event, i.e. touchbacks, but we have not made the play safer,” McKay said. “The injury rate remains right at the same historical levels it has been at.”

The XFL-inspired proposed rule change — made in conjunction with NFL special teams coaches — is an effort to increase the number of kickoff returns while making the play safer. The proposal would keep the kickoff marker at the kicking team’s 35-yard line (and the 20-yard line following a safety), but it would come with the following notable changes:

• All players on the kicking team besides the kicker have to line up in an area called the “setup zone” at the receiving team’s 40-yard line and can’t move until the ball hits the ground or a player on the receiving team.

• At least nine players on the receiving team have to line up in a 5-yard “setup zone” between their 30- and 35-yard line, and seven of them have to have a foot on their 35-yard line. Among those nine, players not on that line must be lined up outside the hashmarks. Just like the players on the kicking team, those on the receiving team cannot move until the kick has hit the ground or a player on the receiving team. A maximum of two returners can be used during the kickoff.

• The area between the receiving team’s goal line and its 20-yard line is called the “landing zone.” Any kick that hits short of the landing zone is treated like a kickoff out of bounds, so the ball would be spotted at the receiving team’s 40-yard line. Any kick that hits in the landing zone must be returned. Any kick that hits in the landing zone and then goes into the end zone must either be returned or downed by the receiving team. If it’s downed, a touchback brings the ball out to the 20-yard line. Any kick that hits in the end zone, stays inbounds and is downed results in a touchback to the receiving team’s 35-yard line. The same goes for any kick that goes out of the back of the end zone.

• No fair catches or signals are allowed.

• Onside kicks are only allowed in the fourth quarter. From that point on, the trailing team “may declare an onside kick” to the officials, who will notify the opposing team.

• The setup zone and landing zone won’t be changed by penalties assessed on the kickoff; only the spot of the kick would move.

• Penalties on scoring plays won’t carry over and will be taken on the extra-point or two-point conversion try. Penalties on the extra-point or two-point conversion try will only change the placement of the kicker.

The broad intention of the proposed kickoff change is to increase the number of returns while also reducing the speeds at which players are moving when they collide. The goal is to make the play more entertaining while decreasing the chances of injury. If it’s approved, the kickoff rule changes will only go into effect for one year. They would be reevaluated again in 2025.

All 32 teams had the opportunity to propose rule changes. The NFL’s competition committee is composed of team representatives: McKay, Cincinnati Bengals executive Katie Blackburn, Miami Dolphins general manager Chris Grier, Dallas Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones, New York Giants owner John Mara, Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

(Photo: Ryan Kang / Getty Images)

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