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Offseason | 2024

IMPACT: NFL kickoff rule changes have ripple effects

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FRISCO, Texas — This year won't be the first time the NFL has opted to make a change to the structure and rule(s) of kickoffs, but it will certainly be the most drastic round of alterations any of us have seen in a very long time, and it will immediately impact players such as KaVontae Turpin and C.J. Goodwin.

After years of tweaking that aspect of the game for what was labeled as concerns for player safety, the league has seen a rabid downturn in the number of returns and a vast deletion of the electric component of kickoffs on the whole — now hoping to reignite the spark in 2024.. 

That said, it's fair to assume there will be obvious positive impact for dynamic returners like Turpin, who has made his intentions clear on more than one occasion since joining the as their ace returner in 2022.

"I don't care because I'm not fair catching [anything]," he reiterated matter-of-factly in May 2023. "I'm being real with you — nothing."

No worries there, because fair catches are no longer allowed in the NFL anyway. Nor will onside kicks be allowed, unless it occurs in the fourth quarter, and even then the officials must be notified — giving a former Pro Bowler like Turpin nearly free reign to try and demonstrate what he can truly do on special teams.

But, what of the others, such as defensive back Goodwin or an up-and-comer like defensive end Sam Williams, who have made a name for themselves in being (or in Williams' case, becoming) an ace gunner?

Keep in mind, the job of a gunner is to fly down the sidelines with reckless abandon to try and take down the returner.

Things get very intriguing for them under the new kickoff guidelines. 

On one hand, more returns are being virtually guaranteed by the NFL going forward, and that's great news for Goodwin and the like, because it means more opportunities at helping to control field position and/or delivering a takeaway that puts the ball back into the hands of the Cowboys' offense. And considering how stellar Goodwin has been in his role as a gunner since he landing in Dallas in 2018.

On the other hand, however, there's an added challenge here.

The new rule states no players from the kicking team can move until the ball is either touched by the returner or hits the ground, stationary until one of the two things occur. That means the ability for a gunner to take advantage of gaining full speed while the ball is in the air has been eliminated; and that was not by accident, as the league tries to hold firm on its view of player safety.

For his part, Goodwin offered his view on the change, and he's not only leaning on the optimistic side of the coin, but he also reveals that Cowboys' special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel has long been preparing them for it.

"I like the rule change, honestly," Goodwin told DallasCowboys.com. "I know Bones is extra excited about getting this rule changed. We actually ran drills in training camp in anticipation of this getting changed at some point. And speed is one thing, running down the field, but there was a lot of dead time when you kick the ball out of the end zone, so it adds a lot of action back to the game. 

"We're expecting more returns this year, which is more plays for everybody, and you can force a fumble on kickoff — so you can change a game in this aspect. We're looking forward to it. It's gonna be fun."

It feels like it was forever ago when the NFL enjoyed watching players like Devin Hester and Dante Hall light up the field on kickoffs, while someone like Matthew Slater (and to a notable extent, Goodwin) impacted games heavily by their ability to shut down some of the more dangerous returners; and it's possible the league will enjoy some of that nostalgia going forward.

That's the hope, at least, but while returners are undoubtedly rejoicing at the news this offseason, and gunners should be as well, the latter can only be elated to a certain degree — seeing as they're frozen in place until the former decides what he wants to do when the ball is in the air.

Returners may reasonably no longer fear gunners in 2024 and beyond, seeing as one won't often be barreling toward them or breaking into their personal space just as they attempt to catch the ball.

And that means the onus is on gunners to make that much more of an impact when they, literally, get a chance at impact.

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