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Return Touchdowns Were Way Down in 2016

Most years, there are about 3.5 to 4.0 return touchdowns per team season in the NFL, or about 115 in the entire NFL. But in 2016, there were just 73 return touchdowns, the fewest in a single season since 1988. I’m defining a return touchdown as a punt return, kickoff return, fumble return, or interception return for a score; this does exclude some unusual returns, such as a blocked field goal return, blocked punt return, missed field goal return, etc.

By this measure, the average team had just 2.3 return touchdowns last year. That’s a pretty unusually low number:

So what’s driving the decrease in return touchdowns? Well, return touchdowns are down across the board. From 1996 to 2015, there were 0.47 punt returns per 16 team games; that number dropped to 0.31 last year. There were 0.42 kickoff return touchdowns per 16 team games from ’96 to ’15, and just 0.22 last year. And when it comes to fumble return touchdowns, there were 0.93 per team season over the prior 20 years, compared to just 0.69 last season. So all three categories saw a dip of about 0.2 per 16 games in 2016, at least relative to the previous two decades.

But there’s no doubt that the biggest decline is in pick sixes. In fact, the decline in interception return touchdowns equals the decline in the other three categories combined: there were 1.67 pick sixes per 16 games from ’96 to ’15, and just 1.06 last season.

In 2012 and 2013, there were an average of 68 pick sixes in the NFL. Last year, there was just half as many. One-year blip, or sign of a new trend?

  • Adam

    If I’m reading the first graph correctly, 2016 had the lowest rate of return TD’s in NFL history. That’s pretty crazy, especially considering 2012 had the highest rate since the merger. The game hasn’t changed all that much in four years, so I’m going to chalk it up to randomness – for now.

    • It’s pretty weird, tho.

  • Deacon Drake

    I can see the reason the kicking game has changed. Punters have gotten much better at directional kicking, kickoff guys have fewer good opportunities (and some guys like Gostkowski are really taking advantage of the 35-yard line with the pop up kick to further enhance coverage advantages)…

    Even though the ball is in the air more, coaches are running risk adverse offenses that involve more back shoulder fades and WR quick screens that difficult to pick, let alone with forward momentum to take it to the house.

    Fumbles always seem like noise…

    At this point, there are few coaches with the intelligence and guts to try to innovate to gain a huge advantage while opening up new risks… it is safer to throw under the coverage short and punt them back and lay the blame on the defense if they can’t stop them.

  • Mike

    Has the percentage of fumbles and INT’s that become touchdowns decline? If INT’s are down, obviously pick 6’s will be down. But that doesn’t mean that its hard to get a pick 6 on an INT.

    • Well, it isn’t as clear as you think, actually. More on this on Thursday.

  • Richie

    How does the ratio of pick six TD’s compare to interceptions?

    Eg, are teams less successful at returning interceptions for TD, or just intercepting less often?

    • Check back later this week!

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  • Jim Murray

    There are many reasons for this, to be sure, but the main reason is the same reason that all major sports are becoming more tedious and boring. Greed for excessive profits has made leagues of governors unwilling to change the game in any way that increases unpredictability, and therefore excitement. Sadly, this also limits the ability of naturally-gifted players to showcase their individual talents. The best example of this is the following: although players have increased in height and weight in the last 100 years, and especially in the last 30 (https://noahveltman.com/nflplayers/), and yet have become much faster than their smaller predecessors, the size of the field has not changed since the game was first formalized. Consequently, the first part of the game to suffer was the running game. While some teams are still successful each year at running the ball, the dominance of the running back has clearly faded. Historically, using the run to set up the pass has reversed. It is rare now to have backs that hit 100 yards on a game-by-game basis, let alone on a year-by-year basis. There is no way Barry Sanders would be as dominant or as consistent nowadays. This scenario has also affected the return runners, especially now that kickers are so much stronger and can put the returners in their own red zone, or out of the end of the red zone. How long did Tom Dempsey’s 65-yard field goal record stand? Now every kicker approaches it, so it is no problem to put the kickoff out of touch, or at least 5 yards in the end zone. The problem is just as bad in hockey, which has reduced the game to the pathetic clutch-and-grab style that is currently prevalent. In both cases, increasing the field or rink size is no option because it will impinge on the number of seats that bring in the owners’ beloved cash.