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Offseason | 2024

How Aubrey's soccer background can help in new kickoff


FRISCO, Texas — When the NFL Competition Committee approved a new kickoff setup during the league meetings back in March, Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel – who was one of the spearheading members of the group pushing the idea – compared the change to when the forward pass was introduced and when the goal posts moved from the goal line to the back of the end zone.

A little rich? Maybe. But there is no underestimating the amount of change that will go into the new rule going into 2024 for everyone involved in the play.

As a refresher, the rule includes the entire kickoff team – except for the kicker who still kicks from the 35-yard line – lining up on the opposing 40-yard line just five yards away from the return team. The play will allow for less collisions while also incentivizing a return after an all-time low 22-percent return rate in 2023.

"I think it makes the difference between a 22-percent rate and 50-60-percent," Fassel said of the new rule. "But I think if you see a couple of teams have some big returns early to mid [season], those teams might get more touchbacks."

Touchbacks will now see the ball come out to the 30-yard line, leading kickers to put the ball within a "landing zone" between the 0 and 20-yard lines to increase the return rate.

It's a staunch change for kickers, who before 2024 have only needed to kick the ball as far as possible to increase the likelihood of a touchback. Now, that idea could be shifted with touch and accuracy increasing importance.

"It's huge," Fassel said. "That might be the biggest difference between last year's kickoff play and this year's kickoff play. It's for the kicker. For the kicker last year, you could see power and distance being the driving force, but now power and distance doesn't mean anything. It's swung now to accuracy. There's distance control to get it between the goal line and the 20."

Enter Cowboys' second-year kicker Brandon Aubrey who is fresh off an All-Pro first season after a brief career in Major League Soccer. A background in the worldwide sport could give Fassel's newest kicker success story a strategic advantage with his ability to kick the ball with different motions and swings.

"I love it," Aubrey said of the new rule. "You have to work with hitting balls in different ways, putting my foot on the ball in slightly different spots with different spots of my foot. Maybe wrapping my foot around it. I think [the soccer background] will help. Going out on the soccer field and workshopping is a skill that I've taken with me to this kickoff."

"It's going to give me a chance to save my leg and hit some unique balls. [Fassel] is aggressive, so he'll give me all the opportunity in the world to go out there and try things, make some mistakes and live with them."

Fassel will begin the installation of his spin on the new rule with the first day of OTAs this week, a shift from previous seasons where punt coverage and punt return took precedence early in the organized offseason activities.

"I think there's a place for knuckleballs, squirrelly balls that we're going to have to catch and they're probably going to have to do the same," he said. "The kickoff specialist, in my opinion, their skills have totally flipped 180."

"I'm expecting a lot of unknown," Fassel said.

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