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Special Teams Coordinator Jay Harbaugh: Seahawks 'Having A Blast' Preparing For New NFL Kickoff

Seahawks special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh discusses the league’s new kickoff rule and how his team is preparing for it.


Jay Harbaugh has spent the bulk of his coaching career at the college level, including the past nine seasons at Michigan, so there was always going to be an adjustment in his first season with the Seahawks, which is also his first as an NFL special teams coordinator.

But what is unique in 2024 is that Harbaugh is in the same boat as every other special teams coordinator around the NFL when it comes to preparing for one of the more significant rule changes the league has made in recent years, a radical overhaul to the kickoff in an attempt to make the play safer while also encouraging more returns.

"We're having a blast," Harbaugh said Monday after another session of organized team activities. "We're really excited about it. It's totally new for everybody, and it's just cool to see the different ideas people have and being able to take what we know from the old world of kickoff and kick return, and see what's still true and what's not true. It's just a fun process as you go, just trying different things and realizing, 'Hey, this might not be what we thought.' It's organized trial and error."

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Under the new rule, the kickoff still takes place from the 35-yard line, but little else will be the same, with the rest of the kicking team on the other side of the field, lined up at the receiving team's 40-yard line, unable to move until the ball touches the ground. The receiving team, meanwhile, will line up with at least nine players in a setup zone between the 30 and 35-yard line, meaning everyone but the kicker and returner or returners will be lined up in close proximity to each other, eliminating the high-speed collisions that have made the kickoff one of the game's most dangerous plays under the old rules.

With such a big change taking place, Harbaugh figures teams will be continuing to adjust how they do thing well into the regular season.

"Honestly, it'll probably be in the regular season," he said, noting he and his fellow special teams coaches will be eager to study other teams' approach to the play after games to see "what works, what doesn't work, so I think you'll see probably for five, six, seven eight weeks, pretty rapid changes. And anyone that has an advantage early will probably be able to keep that advantage for a little while until people catch up."

Until teams start running the play in regular season games, no one knows for certain how the new NFL kickoff will look, though it does share a lot of similarities with the XFL's kickoff rule. Harbaugh noted that teams likely might need two viable returners instead of one because it may be too difficult for a single returner to cover the entire landing zone, particularly since kicking teams will likely be incentivized to try more squib kicks or directional kicks, because, as Harbaugh noted, moving the kicking team means they're "not awarded for hang time anymore." With the action starting when the ball hits the ground within the landing zone, "the rules are incentivizing that type of behavior so I would imagine that's what you're going to get."

The fact that there will be more returns and perhaps better opportunities to break long returns, there is also the potential for kickers to have to make more tackles, which has led to some discussion around the league about having a position player and not a kicker handle kickoff duties. Harbaugh acknowledged that the Seahawks have at least discussed that idea, but also seemed to downplay the viability of it, noting that it's harder than people might think to accurately kick a ball within the landing zone between the end zone and the 20-yard line. Kicks landing short of the landing zone give the receiving team the ball at the 40-yard line, while kicks into or through the end zone come out to the 30-yard line.

"If a guy could do it, it's going to have a chance to be really good, but you've got to be pretty good to be able to kick off a bunch of times and keep the ball in the landing zone every time, because it's a pretty steep price if you miss it," Harbaugh said, also noting that repeatedly kicking for a non-kicker will put additional wear and tear and an unnatural body movement on that player, creating potential injury concerns.

Another result of the new kickoff rule could be the type of players on the field for kickoffs, as well as the number of starters who might be used for what is now a less-violent play.

With speed being less important, Harbaugh said there could be room for a player "who didn't have ideal top-end speed before, but has the arm length and the physicality and the decision making as a defensive player, I think that guy could become more relevant now… In that sense it's a great thing because you can have more flexibility within the roster for guys to be able to get involved."

But for all that will be different this year on the new kickoff, plenty of other fundamentals about the play and about special teams play in general will remain the same, so as the Seahawks and other teams try to sort out what will be different, they're also focused on what they know will remain constant.

"One of the things we've talked about in this building is, instead of focusing on what's different, let's focus on what's stayed the same," Harbaugh said. "The block destruction, the awareness of how far am I from the ball, what decisions should I make as a coverage guy? The same fundamentals in the return game of great feet, great hand placement, great eyes, leverage, all those things are still true. So it's easy to get carried away with what's different, but we think you'll be able to make a lot of hay just understanding and banking on the things that have stayed the same."

And in the end, a rather significant rule change is being embraced because, though it presents some new challenges for coaches to work through, it also makes the kickoff a more important play than it has been in recent years when the vast majority of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

"We're pumped about it," Harbaugh said. "Anything that's more football, we're going to be for it. There's so many great people, coaches and players, who have made a great living on fourth down and in the special teams phase, so for that segment of the game and the people who love that part of the game, it's exciting. There's more opportunity to show what you can do to separate yourself and make an impact on the outcome of the contest."

The Seahawks held their seventh OTA of the offseason on Monday, June 3, 2024 at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center.

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