ELF: New Rules Dramatically Change the Kickoff

On Tuesday, the league office of the European League of Football (ELF) released a statement outlining a significant rules departure of what has been known as the kickoff return. Most notably, the distance between the opponents, the kickoff return team and the kickoff coverage team has been shrunk to just FIVE yards.

Let’s break this down.

KICKOFF SPOT – If interpreted correctly, this means the  defending team (or kickoff coverage side) will line-up on their opponent’s 35-yard line, NOT their own 35-yard line. The kickoff return team will line-up on its own 30-yard line.

CONTACT – When the ball is kicked, only the kicker and returner are allowed to move. That is, two of the 22 players on the field are allowed to move once the ball is kicked.

If the returner touches the ball, all players are allowed to run, block and tackle. The same is true three seconds after the ball touches the ground.

Although not confirmed in their entirety, these rule changes seem to mirror the XFL’s kickoff rules implemented in the league’s 2020 iteration.

Kickoff Safety Focus

Commissioner Patrick Esume reached agreement on these changes with the ELF’s referee and competition committees. For Esume the goal here is “to avoid collisions at top speed”

The ELF believes these new changes put the league a step ahead of the NFL when it comes to player safety. The league claims the kickoff has resulted in injuries of many of the brand-new league’s top players. Esume seems intent on protecting his players, where most (if not all) have commitments outside of the league where their health cannot be jeopardized. “We have professionalized football in Europe, and we will continue to develop. But we are aware that players have to go to work, college, or school the next morning. We want to take that into account,” Esume said.

“We have always stressed being a ‘players league’ and it is our responsibility to minimize the risk of injury. Football is a contact sport; every player takes the risk. But with the kickoff return, we have chosen this way, also out of the conviction that the opportunities for ‘big plays’ will become greater and thus the appeal for fans will continue to increase.”

It is unclear how this rule change will lead to ‘big plays’ however there is no doubt how rules changes to the kickoff have been interpreted by the NFL. According to the league office, the changes resulted in a 38% reduction in kickoff concussions in 2018 compared to 2015-2017.

The rules of the European League of Football, or ELF, are based on the rules of the NFL and the kickoff has been a focus of the NFL’s player safety efforts in recent years, most notably with changes implemented in 2018 and made permanent in 2019. These included changes like no running start and the end of the wedge.

Questions Abound

This ELF release leaves a lot of the nuanced questions unanswered, such as;

Q: Is the kickoff tee or free-kick (if tees are allowed) placed on the return team’s 35-yard line with the rest of the coverage team?

The first part of the new ELF rules seems similar to a rule that was part of the 2020 version of the XFL. According to the XFL rulebook, the kicker kicks from the 30-yard line and must kick the ball in the air and in play between the opponent’s 20-yard line and the end zone. The coverage team lines up on the return side 35-yard line and the return team lines up on the 30-yard line.

Q: What is the touchback spot for the return team? Does it remain the 25-yard line?

The current touchback spot for the return team is their own 25-yard line. How does this new rule incentivize either squad on whether or not to put the ball in play?

Q: How will onside kicks work?

Although it hasn’t been made explicit by the ELF, according the the 202 XLF rules a team wishes to run an onside kick, it must indicate this to the official before the play and the two teams will be permitted to line up using traditional NFL rules (i.e. 10 yards apart from the kicking team). There will be no surprise onside kicks.

Q: Will this create a new breed of kamikaze kicker who streaks down field to blow up the returner?

With the rules keeping all other players frozen while the ball is in the air, … we can only speculate!

John McKeon is a former professional and collegiate American Football player and coach now living and working in New York. His goal is to spread news, information, and opinion on the global growth of the sport he loves.