This offseason, the NFL agreed to change an important kickoff rule. For the 2016 season, a touchback on a kickoff results in the ball being placed at the 25-yard line of the receiving team. Prior to this year, the ball was placed on the 20-yard line. The change in this rule is supposed to incentivize returning teams to accept a touchback more often instead of risking a return and potential injuries.
I took kickoff data from the first week of the preseason — via ESPN’s play-by-play logs — to see how the new rule has played out. Before I get into the data, let me clarify my methods and discuss some shortcomings.
I logged every kickoff from Week 1 of the preseason with exception to two kinds of kicks: squib kicks at the end of halves and free kicks after a safety. To calculate average field position of a kickoff, I considered starting on the opponent’s 30 yard-line starting on the 70-yard line. A kickoff returned for a touchdown (happened three times in Week 1), was considered starting on the 100-yard line. If a penalty occurred on the play, the starting field position logged was the one after the penalty was enforced, regardless of which team the penalty was on. Penalties are an inherent risk when choosing to return the kick, so it should be part of the equation.
It should also be noted that this was the first week of the rule change. Teams are likely trying out a few strategies, so this may not be representative of what we see during the regular season. Additionally, coaches likely want to get a good look at their special teams units, so it is logical to assume team are returning kickoffs more than they will during the regular season.
Alright, with the disclaimers out of the way, let’s dive into the numbers.
Increase in returns
In 2015, 41.1 percent of kickoffs were returned. Through Week 1 in the 2016 preseason, that number rose drastically to 69.2 percent. Now, that number is expected to be higher because of the preseason, but that’s a strikingly high percentage even for an exhibition game.
One theory that coaches had this offseason was that teams would start to try to shorten kickoffs in order to force a return, hoping to stop a team before the 25-yard line. Let’s see how that strategy has played out after one week of the preseason.
Kicking the ball short of the endzone
Teams only employed this strategy — intentionally or unintentionally — 24.4 percent of the time, meaning kickoffs landed in the end zone in over three of every four kicks. This strategy backfired for the team. The average starting position for a kickoff short of the end zone was the 26.4-yard line. For the other 75.6 percent of kicks, the average starting position was the 25.5-yard line. That isn’t a striking difference, but every yard counts in football.
To knee or not to knee?
Teams kicked the ball into the end zone 75.6 percent of the time in Week 1. This left the returning team with a new conundrum: kneel down and accept the new, increased field position at the 25-yard line, or take your chances with a return? Teams overwhelmingly chose the latter strategy, returning kickoffs from the end zone 59.6 percent of the time.
But was that a good choice? That really depends on what metric you use. The average starting field position of end zone kicks that were returned was the 25.8-yard line, just slightly better than the guaranteed 25 yard line. However, only 30.5 percent of returns managed to reach the 25-yard line, meaning the average field position is a bit skewed by the long returns. Of course, that’s part of the benefit of returning kicks: the chance at breaking out for a touchdown, and it happened twice in the 99 times the ball was kicked into the end zone.
So it comes down to a matter of preference. If you’re returning a kickoff from the end zone, chances are pretty good you won’t reach the 25-yard line. However, when considering the chance at a big return, the field position averages come out to almost an even draw.
What does it all mean?
Well, nothing... yet. Obviously, teams are still playing with the rule and evaluating their special teams units in the preseason. However, I do find it interesting that the strategy on the returning team’s side is essentially a 50/50 split. The value of taking a touchback is nearly identical to the value of returning a kickoff from the end zone.
So the change in the number of kickoff returns is really more dependent on the kicking team. If they decide to kick the ball shorter — which the early statistics say is a bad idea — we’ll obviously see more returns. If they decide to just boot it through the end zone, much like they did last year, we’ll continue to see fewer returns.