XFL recordings help Arizona Cardinals prepare for new NFL kickoff rules

By José M. Romero, Arizona Republic

The Arizona Cardinals are adjusting to the NFL’s new hybrid kickoff rules for 2024. They are already working on what formations and results could look like even now in organized team activities.

It’s a big deal, as the league hopes to raise the percentage of kickoffs returned from the 22% rate last season. Taking a page out of the former XFL spring football league, the NFL has adopted a new procedure for kickoffs for 2024. Gone is the traditional kickoff that often resulted in touchbacks or a kick-out-of-bounds penalty, before which coverage and return teams were lined up farther apart on the field.

This year, the 10 non-kickers on the kicking team line up at the opponent’s 40-yard line, facing the receiving team with each player five yards apart along the yard line. The receiving team lines up at its own 35, and must have seven players in a five-yard area between their own 30- and 35-yard lines in an area called the setup zone.

The receiving team can have two returners between the 20-yard line and end zone, which it called the landing zone.

Here’s where it gets a little crazy. Returners can move freely before and during the kickoff. Kicking team players cannot move from the start line until the ball hits the ground or the returner catches it.

Kickers cannot cross midfield until the kick is fielded or the ball hits the ground. Kicks into the end zone result in touchbacks with the ball brought out to the 35-yard line. Kicks falling short of the landing zone result in the ball being brought out to the 40-yard line.

The new rules aim to help player safety while allowing for more excitement on what for years has been a dull, procedural play. Kickoff returns could be fun again because more will happen.

“This thing is totally different than anything we’ve ever coached. There’s still blocking and tackling going on, but the space and the angles of how you’re trying to get those things done are vastly different than they were before,’ Cardinals special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers said Tuesday.

The Cardinals start from ground zero every year with special teams setups, coordinator Jeff Rodgers said, because there are always new faces and players not familiar with the scheme. Rodgers has been watching XFL game recordings to get a better sense of how the new rules will work.

With the players in town for OTAs, Rodgers and his staff can now work on the field and exchange observations.

“When we get into the preseason and you start getting these things in pads, everything has to be re-evaluated, from what you’re asking the guys to do technique-wise to what you’re asking them to do schematically,” Rodgers said. “We’re still in the process of figuring these things out.”

Kickoff teams initially will feature players with more size, with bigger guys having less space to move, Rodgers believes. He also feels returns will triple in 2024.

“The guys are excited about it. They’re ready to compete in this play,” Rodgers said. “You want your guys to want to play.”

“Learning on the run a little bit,” Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon said. “I like where it’s at, but we’ve got a long way to go with that.”

Cardinals players say they will roll with whatever the rules are.

“I do feel like they’re kind of softening up how the game is played a little bit. So I do anticipate a lot more returns this year,” defensive lineman Justin Jones said.

“I think it’s definitely for our safety,” outside linebacker BJ Ojulari said. “It’s our job just to go out there and perform.”

“I love it. It’s going to be competition again,” longtime Cardinals special teamer Dennis Gardeck said. “I don’t want to run down the field on a touchback. Let’s go.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: New kickoff rules means offseason work for Cardinals special teams