It’s not just kickoffs that are in a period of change in today’s NFL. After enacting a number of rule changes in recent years to make the kickoff safer, the NFL will now focus on the punt as it aims to decrease injuries and penalties, league officials told ESPN on Tuesday. Changes could be coming as soon as next season.

According to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, the league will “crowdsource ideas from the analytics community” as “part of the 1st and Future project, an innovation competition that culminates in a Feb. 2 presentation in Atlanta, site of Super Bowl LIII.” However, the league did not promise to use any of the ideas brought to them. 

So why is the NFL planning on changing the punt? NFL executive vice president of health and safety initiatives Jeff Miller said that punts cause twice as many concussions than normal plays. Meanwhile, penalties most frequently occur during punts, Seifert reported, which is easy to believe after seeing holding and illegal-block-in-the-back penalties get flagged on what seems like every other punt — if not more.

“We know our fans are not big fans of every play ending in a penalty, and that’s one thing we definitely want to look at,” Rich McKay, the head of the competition committee, said.

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None of this should come as a huge surprise after all of the rules we’ve seen the NFL modify in an attempt to make the kickoff less dangerous. The NFL decreased the number of kickoff returns by moving the kickoff from the 30 to the 35-yard line in addition to moving the touchback from the 20 to the 25-yard line. More recently, they eliminated wedge blocking techniques by the return team and running starts for the kicking team.

Punts appear to be the NFL’s next target. While complaints will undoubtedly be made whenever the NFL does make changes to the punt, it’s easy to understand why the NFL is trying to make a special teams play safer and less likely to end in a penalty. Hopefully, the changes won’t prohibit the Devin Hesters and Johnny Hekkers of the NFL from making the kind of plays that can make the punt exciting, but even if that happens and the end result is a safer sport, it’ll be tough to criticize the league for doing so.

Many critics have bemoaned the changes made to the kickoff in recent years, but those changes have hardly impacted the quality of football in today’s NFL while the league says injuries have been reduced to the point where the kickoff won’t have to be eliminated entirely, which was mentioned as a possible outcome as recently as March. Next up? The punt. 

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