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:
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:
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.
- Patterson had 32 returns, but only 30 show up in the play finder. [↩]