For the second time in five years, the kickoff is getting revamped. In 2011, the NFL decided to move the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line in order to produce more touchbacks — and got the results it wanted. Teams returned more than 80 percent of all kickoffs before the rule change and now, as of last season, only 41.1 percent of kicks were brought back.
With those numbers in mind, the NFL decided this spring to bump up touchbacks from the 20-yard line to 25-yard line for at least the first four weeks of the 2016 season. The NCAA initiated this rule change in 2012 — in conjunction with pushing the kickoff up to the 35-yard line — and saw the amount of touchbacks increase from 15.2 percent in 2010-11 to 34.8 percent in 2012.
It was previously assumed that the NFL wouldn’t make an evaluation on the new touchback procedure until the end of the year. But last week, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said the league will assess the change after the first quarter of the season. The initiative has received mixed reviews from NFL coaches throughout the preseason, and may not wind up being all that effective, anyway.
Why push up the touchback?
The NFL is continuing its seeming crusade to marginalize the kickoff, which is one of the most dangerous plays in the game. Since only nine teams averaged more than 25 yards per kick return in 2015, it’s more logical for returners to take a knee in the end zone rather than try to run the kick back. In theory, this rule change should produce more touchbacks, and lessen the importance of the kickoff.
Will it work?
Though the results may be different once the games start counting, this rule change proved to be a failure during the preseason. Returners opted to go with the touchback 42.6 percent of the time this summer, which is down from last preseason’s total of 44 percent.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this apparent anomaly is that kickers have changed their approach. Rather than trying to boot the ball through the end zone, many popped up their kicks, looking to maximize hang time instead of distance. Only 78.5 percent of kicks reached the end zone this preseason, compared to 90 percent of kicks last year.
But even with all of those additional returns, teams didn’t see a significant increase in their starting field position. On average, offenses took over on their own 24.4 yard lines, which is up slightly from last year’s average starting mark, the 21.9 yard line.
Given the chance of giving up a long return, the risk to short “mortar” kicks may not be worth the reward. If kickers launch the ball into the end zone at a high rate during the regular season, it’s fair to surmise that the touchback total will at least return to previous levels.
What has the reaction been?
There has been a lot of pushback in NFL coaching circles. Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said last month this change may produce more returns than ever before.
“Listen, I think these special teams guys are smart guys,” he said. “They’re popping the ball up. We might have more returns than we’ve ever had. It’s crazy. I’m not sure it’s the same statement the league was trying to get but that’s what we’re getting right now. These kickers are so accurate and they can put it right down there at the 5-yard line of the goal line and force you into a return and then your coverage team has to do your thing. Special teams coaches and coverage teams have the confidence that if the kicker does that they can keep them within the 20-yard area. I think you’re probably going to see more returns than ever.”
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick took Reid’s words a step further, saying he hopes this rule change spurs more action in the kicking game.
“I personally like the plays in the kicking game. I think they’re good plays,” he said in early August, via ESPN Boston. “I think we had a more competitive extra-point play last year [and] I’d like to see kickoffs be more competitive, with more opportunities to return. It’s an exciting play in the game.”
Kickers have a lot of incentive to keep the kickoff as a part of the game, because if it disappears, they’d lose half of their duties. That, more than anything else, may lead to this rule change’s failure.