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Yesterday, the NFL approved a one-year rule to kickoffs to change the spot of the snap after a touchback to the 25-yard line. Last year, 56% of all kickoffs were not returned, and the average starting field position following kickoffs was heavily impacted by the 2011 rule change that moved kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 yard line:

kickoff fp

This change goes in the other direction, albeit with competing interests. On one hand, this provides a significant incentive for kickoff returners to take a knee. Many kickoffs are boomed several yards into the end zone; at this point, the odds are pretty low that an average return five yards deep will make it out ahead of the 25-yard line.

For example, the Vikings Cordarrelle Patterson was the top kickoff returner last year. Using the PFR game play finder, on Patterson’s 30 returns1, only 8 of them began in the field of play, with the other 23 being “eligible” for a touchback.  In addition, 13 of his 30 returns began with him at least 5 yards deep in the end zone, which will likely be an automatic touchback now except in end-of-half situations:

patterson ko return

Special teams coaches will certainly instruct their players to take a knee on deep kickoffs, both for strategic reasons and to prevent injury. On the other hand, this rule at least has the potential for one significant unintended consequence: with the kickoff now at the 35, we may see teams instruct their kickoff specialists to kick high and short. If they can force a player to field the ball at the 5 (and it seems unlikely a returner will let the ball bounce and hope it falls into the end zone), it’s almost certain that the coverage unit will be able to, on average, tackle the returner inside of the 25.

NFL teams may decide that the strategic play may not be worth the time, risk (injury and volatility of results), or effort. But I have to imagine at least some head coaches today are thinking this rule could cause fewer touchbacks, and are thinking of ways to make sure that none of their team’s kickoffs go into the end zone.

  1. Patterson had 32 returns, but only 30 show up in the play finder. []
  • Richie

    Yeah, when I first saw this news, my first thought was that kicking teams might want to avoid touchbacks.

  • Dave

    If the NFL really wants to get rid of touchbacks, and a touchback was at the 20 and the average stating position was 22.5, then this is a great case for just placing the ball at the 20. It’s nearly even.

    Now with the 25 yard touchback, there’s less incentive for kicking into the endzone and, you’re right, there will be more kick returns (and more injuries). The NFL has it backwards on this one. At least this is a one year rule. I bet they change it back to the 20 next year.

    I wonder what the game would be like if the ball was placed at the 15 after a touchback instead of the 20 or 25. I think we’d see more returns and I would guess the average starting field position would increase to about the 25 yard line.

    • Richie

      If injury rates are actually higher on kickoffs (I don’t know if I’ve seen anything to verify this), I am still in favor of just eliminating the kickoff, and giving the kicking team the option to either kick, or automatically put the receiving team on their own 20. (This would let the kicking team still be able to try onside kicks.)

  • Adam

    I think the NFL’s only reason for keeping the kickoff is to provide an excuse for commercial breaks. Without a kickoff, they could only air one set of commercials after each score.

    • Hercules_Rockefeller

      they’d just replace it with more TV timeouts. The end result would be the same proportion of commercials per game, the only difference is how they’re spread out through the game.

  • Deacon Drake

    Elimination of all kickoffs really impacts the ability for teams to overcome deficits (no onside kicks). The NFL has already taken steps to eliminate any advantage the kicking team may try to drum up with the onside kick, and stats show that the most effective ones are the “surprise” onside kicks attempted in non-traditional situations.

    By making teams “declare” they are kicking onside to avoid the automatic ball spot just comes off as ludicrous. Some coach would just decide to kick onside every time, only to pooch it high to the 10 yard line and try to run under it… sounds very XFL-ish.

    • Richie

      I’m willing to give up the once or twice per season that teams attempt completely unexpected onside kicks. Most onside kicks are attempted when the trailing team is running out of time, and the receiving team is expecting the onside attempt.