Green Bay Packers

The NFL's Radical New Kickoff Rules Could Turn Keisean Nixon Into The Ultimate Gamebreaker

Photo credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

With the NFL poised to undergo its most impactful rule change in decades, teams are grappling to find an edge. Beginning this fall, the league will replace the traditional kickoff with a version that the competition committee designed to decrease injuries while increasing action.

The kickoff has become a formality in recent years, with most games starting with the ball soaring over the returner’s head and out the back of the end zone. It looked like the league might ban the play altogether, given the lack of action and disproportionately high concussion rates associated with it. However, the revamped XFL’s debut last spring instantly ignited conversation around the potential new format, so here we are.

The Green Bay Packers were one of three teams to vote against the rule change. Special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, who had input in the vote, called the proposal “radical” and expressed his affinity for the conventional kickoff. The “no” vote aligned with the type of traditionalist attitude we’ve come to expect from Green Bay. However, from a competitive perspective, it would stand to reason that they would support boosting the kickoff’s relevance, given that they have Keisean Nixon, an All-Pro returner.

Semi-recent history hasn’t given the Packers a ton to love about the kickoff, with Devin Hester and Cordarrelle Patterson wreaking havoc in the NFC North. Green Bay had cycled through kickers for years before Nixon secured it with a string of dynamic performances down the stretch of the 2022 season. Last year, he saw increased action at slot corner, adding a game-sealing interception of Patrick Mahomes to his list of signature moments. His massive return in Santa Clara in December was a prime display of his value, although he often had to bring out kicks from obnoxiously deep in the end zone to try and replicate his 2022 output.

Teams are making strategic and personnel adjustments to try and gain an edge due to the dramatic change. New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh contextualized his team’s addition of the undersized, injury-riddled, yet versatile Tarik Cohen by pointing out that “with the new kickoff rules…they’re going to touch the ball over 100 times a year.… At least, that’s what we’re anticipating. And a guy like him, he’s still young, obviously coming off a lot of injuries, but we’re excited to have him aboard.”

Cohen will compete with Xavier Gipson for what the Jets view as a prominent role, provided that some of the XFL’s special teams ingenuity also makes the leap. Joe Powell housed the league’s first reverse attempt for the St. Louis Battlehawks, lining up on the 30 as a blocker before orbiting the returner and taking the ball with him.

Kansas City Chiefs coach Dave Toub offered a more radical idea, suggesting he may employ safety Justin Reid on kickoffs instead of Harrison Butker. Reid is a serviceable kicker, with a PAT and a couple of touchbacks on his resumé after filling in for an injured Butker last season. However, Toub’s reasoning went beyond that. According to Kansas City’s interpretation, kickers were involved in 25 to 40% of the tackles in XFL kickoff plays, a harrowing proportion given Butker’s importance as one of the league’s most reliable kickers. Opposing teams will also have to game plan for an 11th tackler because Reid is more than capable in that respect. Furthermore, a touchback coming out to the 30-yard line disincentives sending the ball deep, and the “landing zone” gimmick eradicates the value of hang time.

Brian Gutekunst made a personnel decision by extending Nixon on a three-year, $18 million contract. The figure looked large at the time, especially considering the Packers were expected to address much of the secondary through the draft. However, he looks like he priced in the amplified importance of kick returners. After Gutekunst added no cornerbacks in the draft’s first six rounds, it’s also safe to anticipate a similar defensive role for Nixon.

Despite voting no, the Packers are well-positioned to be among the league’s biggest beneficiaries of the new rules. Last season, Bisaccia green-lit returns out from the boundary line of the end zone, hoping to get some of Nixon’s signature marathon runbacks. He was made the league’s highest-paid special teams coordinator following the 2021 season in response to a complete dismantling of 16.7 percent of the game, leading to another shocking San Francisco 49ers playoff upset on Lambeau Field.

The Packers also gave Bisaccia creative control over special teams personnel, and Nixon’s game-breaking returns have headlined the improvements across the sector over the past two seasons. This fall, the ball will be in his hands more often than ever, and the Packers have a real opportunity to help this rule change tilt the game in their favor.

Green Bay Packers
Gutekunst Isn’t Satisfied With Green Bay’s Kicking Situation
By Matt Hendershott - Jun 20, 2024
Green Bay Packers
Could the Packers Make A Surprise Cut At Receiver?
By Luke Sims - Jun 19, 2024
Green Bay Packers

Can the Packers Take Advantage Of Their Early Schedule?

Photo credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Green Bay Packers open their season with a historic game in Brazil, and the team faces only two divisional games in the first 10 weeks. After […]

Continue Reading