Touchy Subject: Early Returns On New Kickoff Rule

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 15, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Advocate of the Flying Wedge


If you watched any game during Week 1 of the preseason, you undoubtedly heard the announcers talk about the new kickoff rule that puts the ball at the 35-yard line rather than the 30.
 
If you watched the Chicago's 10-3 win vs. Buffalo you saw two things: a lot of sacks of Chicago quarterbacks and the Bears defiantly kick from their own 30 twice before being directed by the league to stop.
 
Teams like Chicago and Cleveland have built an advantageous return game and they have been against this change from the start. Many fans feel it will take some excitement out of the game as touchbacks will be much more common.
 
There was discussion to move touchbacks to the 25-yard line. That did not pass. Some harp on the fact that they once kicked off from the 35 and the game survived. Kickers are stronger, and flat out better, in today’s game. All the players are stronger now.
 
That is why the change has come in the name of safety, though it's hard to recall any hard evidence being released to the public on the frequency of injuries on these kick returns. While you can plainly see kick returns are one of the more dangerous plays in the game, it’s also common sense that they make up a much smaller percentage of overall plays compared to all the runs and passes from scrimmage. There were approximately 33,000 plays from scrimmage last season, compared to 2,539 kickoffs.
 
How many injuries this will actually prevent is a mystery since we do not know how many kick return-related injuries there were in the first place.
 
However, we do have past information on starting field position and scoring and will be able to measure the impact of the new kickoff rule in 2011. If teams have to start at their own 20-yard line more often, and you lessen the impact of kick returns, won’t scoring decrease?
 
Here is collected kicking data for the last five regular seasons (2006-2010) and for Week 1 of the 2011 preseason (*except for the N.Y. Jets-Houston game Monday night).

Averages (2006-10) League AVG Per Team 2011 PS Wk 1
Kickoffs 2508.2 78.4 130
Touchbacks 363.0 11.3 43
Touchback % 14.5 14.5 33.1
Kick Return Avg. 22.6 22.6 25.2
Kickoff Distance 63.9 63.9 66.4
LOS After KR 28.7 28.7 23.8
 
Note: We did not factor out onside kicks, or kicks that go out of bounds. We did not factor in penalties on kick returns that can definitely have an impact (good or bad) on where a team starts after the kick. The kicking team also could be in a better or worse position due to penalties.
 
The second column is for all 32 teams, and you can see there are on average just over 2,500 kickoffs in a season (78.4 per team). The touchback rate has been 14.5 percent. So far this preseason, it’s at 33.1 percent. The kickoff distance is up, and since they are kicking from the 35 now, the average line of scrimmage (LOS) after the kick return is nearly 5 yards less. Well that makes sense. Move the ball up five yards, start five yards farther back.
 
How likely is this to continue? After all, it’s only based on 15 preseason games. Will that return average of 25.2 be the new norm? Perhaps taking the ball out of the end zone inflates kick return average (the head start you get), while being a risky decision for your team. We did have a 103-yard kick return touchdown in the San Diego game, and those are not common. What about the kicks going 66.4 yards? The weather will turn in a few months, and the ball won’t travel as long. Some kickers will continue to struggle at getting touchbacks under the new rule. Still, there’s a very good chance we will see twice as many touchbacks than what we are accustomed to.
 
What might a 35 percent rate of touchbacks do to scoring?
 
Using the drive stats on FootballOutsiders, the number of offensive drives for all teams in a season (2006-10) is 5,766, or 180.2 per team.
 
Quick note: FO’s drive stats remove kneel down drives, which we did not do for this study. We also would remove non-offensive scores (returns, safeties) when talking about an offense’s scoring, but we've already spent more than the legally allotted time on preseason data. Listen, we’re sitting here talking about preseason, not a game, not a real game, but we’re talking about preseason.
 
Roughly 43 percent (let’s say 78/180) of a team’s offensive drives in a season will start after a kick return. Using 35 percent touchbacks, then about 27 of them will be touchbacks (compared to just over 11 for previous seasons).
 
Using the win probability calculator from Advanced NFL Stats, the expected point (EP) value for starting at each yard line from your own 20 to own 30 (1st & 10) is as follows:
 
Yard Line EP
20 0.34
21 0.38
22 0.42
23 0.46
24 0.51
25 0.58
26 0.65
27 0.72
28 0.78
29 0.85
30 0.90
 
You can see the difference between starting at the 24 versus the 29 is 0.34 points. Starting at your own 20 versus the 29 is about 0.5 points. The probability of an offense starting at the 20 and scoring a touchdown is around 15 percent.
 
If the average team has 78 drives start from kick returns, then having 16 more of them as touchbacks is roughly a decrease of 8 EP. The average field position does not help us calculate total EP since it is just an average. Obviously a team is not going to start 78 drives at exactly the 24-yard line. Some will be within their own 10, some in the 11-19, a good amount at the 20, spread out in the 21-29, and then bigger returns that lead to better field position. But if the average field position is decreasing, then expected points will decrease.
 
Making a projection on scoring fluctuation is tricky. Many of the past significant variations have no real explanation to them. Why did teams average 24 more points on the season from 2001 to 2002? Why did scoring drop 17 points from 1995 to 1996? There were no considerable rule changes that would helped that happen. Chalk it up to pure randomness, or perhaps player health.
 
Last year, teams averaged 352.6 points for the season. Without much hard data to go on, it's reasonable to assume the average team will score 16 fewer points this year (1.0 PPG). This study was not done as an exact science, but hopefully this projection won’t be astronomically off-base.
 
Here are the points scored and average starting field position for each team in Week 1 of the preseason from 2008-2011.

Team 2008 2009 2010 2011 Team 2008 2009 2010 2011
 Arizona 27.7 29.2 24.4 29.3 Arizona 10 10 19 24
Atlanta 33.5 26.6 45.7 30.7 Atlanta 17 26 20 23
Baltimore 41.2 31.1 29.6 27.3 Baltimore 16 23 17 6
Buffalo 32.8 38.7 25.3 26.0 Buffalo 14 27 17 3
Carolina 30.9 25.4 36.4 29.3 Carolina 23 17 12 20
Chicago 29.4 33.9 23.4 34.1 Chicago 20 20 10 10
Cincinnati 32.9 19.8 37.8 23.6 Cincinnati 20 7 33 3
Cleveland 33.9 32.4 34.2 25.8 Cleveland 20 0 27 27
Dallas 20.0 24.9 31.8 22.5 Dallas 17 10 9 24
Denver 35.7 29.1 25.6 28.3 Denver 16 16 24 23
Detroit 29.0 26.4 23.9 35.1 Detroit 13 27 7 34
Green Bay 29.4 32.4 27.5 26.5 Green Bay 17 17 24 17
Houston 33.5 35.8 32.5 - Houston 19 16 16 -
Indianapolis 28.7 20.7 32.1 18.6 Indianapolis 20 3 17 10
Jacksonville 31.7 32.0 37.8 28.5 Jacksonville 20 9 27 12
Kansas City 23.5 20.3 25.8 17.3 Kansas City 24 10 10 0
Miami 26.6 32.0 27.4 30.0 Miami 6 12 10 28
Minnesota 32.3 32.3 30.3 29.4 Minnesota 17 13 28 3
New England 32.0 24.9 35.1 34.5 New England 15 27 27 47
New Orleans 31.3 37.4 21.1 34.8 New Orleans 24 17 24 24
NY Giants 28.3 36.1 31.7 26.3 NY Giants 10 24 31 10
NY Jets 22.0 21.5 32.5 - NY Jets 24 20 16 -
Oakland 28.5 29.7 21.7 26.3 Oakland 18 31 17 18
Philadelphia 25.0 30.5 27.2 24.8 Philadelphia 10 25 28 13
Pittsburgh 36.4 30.4 31.1 20.4 Pittsburgh 16 20 23 7
San Diego 42.7 27.9 43.1 26.5 San Diego 31 14 25 17
San Francisco 30.4 31.0 37.9 21.1 San Francisco 6 17 37 3
Seattle 35.5 29.3 32.4 30.8 Seattle 34 20 20 24
St. Louis 18.9 31.6 27.0 39.3 St. Louis 13 23 7 33
TampaBay 29.6 30.8 33.5 38.3 TampaBay 17 20 7 25
Tennessee 30.8 29.9 28.6 27.3 Tennessee 34 27 18 14
Washington 35.1 23.8 30.5 26.5 Washington 17 0 42 16
Average 30.6 29.3 30.8 28.0 Average 18.1 17.1 20.3 17.3
 
Of course the difference between this preseason and the past three is the lockout factor. But thanks to New England’s 47 points against Jacksonville, scoring is in the range of 2008-09.  Field position (and this is all drives; not just after kickoffs) is at 28.0, the lowest in four years. 28.0 would rank 30th in the 2010 regular season, and there are 21 teams that started below the 30, so it is definitely something to keep an eye on this year.
 
However, the game of football is often a balancing act. So what’s bad for one team could be good for another, and that is the reason why you the data do not say definitively that this change is going to kill scoring.
 
The Chiefs, who set offensive football back 80 years in their preseason opener, had the worst average starting field position (SFP) of the week (17.3). The Colts (18.6) were the second worst. Their opponents enjoyed the best average SFP of the week, which Tampa Bay (38.3) and St. Louis (39.3) took full advantage of along their way to dominating victories.
 
The change may make scoring first more valuable than in the past. The right strategy to start a game may now be kicking off after winning the coin toss. Kickoff, hope for a touchback, pin the opponent at the 20, play good defense, force a punt, start your offense in good field position.
 
Then after you score, you try to do the same thing, making it harder on the trailing team this season when they are forced to go at least eighty yards for a touchdown after just giving up points. The chances of that big kick return to get back in the game are no longer as good. Maybe this will lead to more blowout victories.
 
NFL football in 2011 is still going to look like recent NFL football, but this is one rule change fans should keep an eye on. We won’t know the true impact until they start playing the real games, but it is fun to take a look at.
 
Who knows, maybe this rule change will put the Ravens and “Touchback-Jesus” Billy Cundiff over the top in the AFC, while the Chicago Bears and Devin Hester watch the playoffs at home like the rest of us.

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