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The NFL Is Botching Kickoff Returns

Citing concerns about safety, the NFL adopted a rule change last offseason that moved touchbacks on kickoffs five yards out to the 25-yard line, ostensibly to reduce the number of kick returns, though perhaps with the added benefit of juicing the league’s offense.

For its stated purpose, the effect of the rule change has been underwhelming. Of non-onside kickoffs this season, 39 percent have been returned. While this is an all-time low, it’s only down from 42 percent last season, which was already well below the 52 percent average from 2011-14, which was way below the average before the tee placement for kickoffs was moved to the 35-yard line in 2011. It’s not clear that this decline is any greater than what we would have expected if the rule change on returns hadn’t been adopted, based on the ongoing kicker improvement that has been taking place across the board.

While there are multiple issues at play, the main reason the change hasn’t been more effective is straightforward: Despite kick returns out of the end zone being rendered a demonstrably worse bet, teams keep trying them.

Below is a chart showing the league average starting field position for standard kickoff returns1 from near the end zone:

morris-kickoffs-1

This chart doesn’t give any bonus value to touchdowns, which are slightly more valuable than their equivalent in yardage, though it also doesn’t reflect returns with fumbles lost (which are rare, but still considerably more common than return touchdowns). While some endgame situations may arise where even a bad return is worth trying, and perhaps some of those returns were legitimate responses to openings presented by the kick-coverage unit, ultimately there is no reason to be significantly under the red line save poor judgment. If the entire league had simply taken a knee on these 356 kickoffs it returned out of the endzone, it would have saved a combined 1,108 yards of field position.

Kick returners have been more judicious this season — just 23 percent of standard kickoffs have been returned from the end zone, compared with 33 percent last year2 — but little has changed about the average result of such returns, other than whether they’re worth it.

Some teams appear to be figuring this out and have been rewarded as a result. Others have declined the free yards and continued running it out, and they have been punished accordingly:

morris-kickoffs-2

In 2015, the Jacksonville Jaguars returned 24 percent of kickoffs out of the end zone, and had the seventh-worst average starting field position in the league. In 2016, they have the lowest return rate from the end zone in the league at just under 9 percent3 and are tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the second-best starting field position after those kickoffs (both 0.8 yards better than if they’d taken the touchbacks). Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears went from returning 37 percent in 2015 to returning 48 percent in 2016. Yet, despite seeing their starting field position improve from the 23-yard line to the 24-yard line, their advantage fell from being tops in the league (by a wide margin) to being 20th — and one of the 25 teams that would have been better off always taking a knee.

Further complicating matters, kickoffs that drop short of the goal line seem to be better for the kicking team than touchbacks (as you can see on the first chart above). Before the new rule came into play, the league anticipated that coaches and kickers might try to game the system by kicking just short of the end zone. This seems to have happened, at least somewhat, with 79 percent of kickoffs going into the end zone this season, down from 87 percent last season. That’s a low mark since the kickoff spot was moved in 2011 (in a stat that had been on the rise). But the fact that teams have been willing to inefficiently return out of the end zone may have limited the incentive to try.

If this rule stays, it’s likely that teams will adjust eventually on both sides, meaning fewer returns out of the end zone but fewer kicks into the end zone, as well. Kickoffs may essentially go the way of punts, with how often a kicker pins the opposing team inside the touchback line (“In 25”) becoming an important stat for kickoff specialists.

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Footnotes

  1. Meaning returns from non-onside kickoffs kicked from the 35-yard line, excluding returns that ended in a lost fumble.
  2. That 33 percent was also down from the 42 percent between 2011 and 2014.
  3. Jacksonville returned 8.7 percent to the Carolina Panthers’ 9.3 percent.

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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