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Changing kickoff rules really isn’t changing college football much

Let’s run the numbers on how several rule changes have altered the game.

San Jose State v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

College football is in a calibration phase on player safety.

Tackling rules have changed to limit head-to-head contact, and while that will have long-term benefits, players and coaches are still adjusting to the fundamentals, and fans are still very much in the “rage about the targeting rule when our player gets ejected” phase.

We’re also still tiptoeing through the process of eliminating kickoffs.

The dance began in the summer of 2011, when Greg Schiano, head coach of Rutgers at the time, proposed eliminating them altogether. The previous fall, he had watched RU’s Eric LeGrand suffer a life-altering injury on a kickoff, and found himself wondering why we went through the ceremonial act at all.

“That whole time was a blur,” the Rutgers head coach said last week. “I just remember thinking, ‘Why do we have to have kickoffs? Just because we’ve always had them?’ ”

He proposed replacing the kickoff with a fourth-and-15 from the 30-yard line, where kickoffs were then taking place. A team could either punt or attempt the new version of an onside kick, a fourth-and-15 conversion attempt.

Some of the verbiage changed over time, but the sentiment remained the same: if kickoffs are abnormally unsafe, even for football, and if they require different practices, fundamentals, and players than any other play, why do we have them at all?

(Field goals and punts are somewhat similar, but they occur on fourth downs as part of regular football drives, not standalone plays between drives, plus a team can choose to run a fake. And it’s not like a field goal is an especially dangerous play.)

In politics, your party is served well by having anchors — extreme ideas that can make merely aggressive ideas seem much more reasonable. Schiano’s proposal served as an anchor for making more conservative changes to kickoffs to limit injury opportunity.

In February 2012, kickoffs were moved from the 30 to the 35 to raise the number of touchbacks.

Meanwhile, touchbacks on kickoffs were moved from the 20 to the 25 to encourage return men to take a knee in the end zone rather than running out.

The results were significant. In 2011, 79.3 percent of kickoffs were returned; in 2012, that fell to 60.6 percent. Perhaps as importantly from a perceptions standpoint, the field position resulting from this change barely shifted at all — on average, a kickoff resulted in average field position of 28.1 in 2011 and 26.4 in 2012.

By 2017, the kickoff had become even more ceremonial, as only 54 percent of kickoffs were returned. Touchback rates had risen from 16.1 percent in 2011 and 35.5 percent in 2012 to 41.5 percent, but again, the resulting field position (26.1) was barely changing.

In April 2018, the sport took another step, allowing return teams to take a touchback for any kickoff fair caught inside the 25.

This caused some confusion at first — when a return man called for a fair catch out of the end zone during Week 0’s Colorado State-Hawaii game, some players reacted as if they hadn’t heard of the rule — and gave announcers a new talking point in every game.

But did it actually impact the game out of the gates?

Not really.

College football kickoff stats, 2017 vs. 2018

Season 2017 (full season) 2018 (1 week)
Season 2017 (full season) 2018 (1 week)
Touchback rate 41.5% 45.3%
Return rate 54.0% 43.6%
Fair catch rate 0.8% 7.6%
Out of bounds rate 2.9% 2.8%
Avg. net yards 38.9 40.2
Avg. resulting field position 26.1 24.8
Kickoff success rate* 72.6% 76.7%
Avg. kickoff distance 61.1 61.5
Kick return average 21.0 21.5
Kick reurn success rate* 43.7% 45.2%
Big return rate (>40 yards) 4.9% 4.7%
Return TD rate 1.2% 1.6%

* Success rates, as they pertain to special teams, are discussed and defined here. In short, a kickoff is either a success for the kicking team or the returning team, depending on whether it crosses the 25 or not.

Again, this is only one week of data, and we’ll see how coaches adapt their strategies to the new rule. But initial impressions are as follows:

  • Only 44 percent of kickoffs were returned, a drop of 10 percentage points from 2017, and touchback rates increased by 4 percentage points.
  • Kickoff success rates, i.e. kickoffs resulting in field position at the 25 or lower, increased from 73 percent to 77 percent.
  • Kick return success rates also increased, but only slightly, from 44 percent to 45. I was curious about this (in theory, return teams can be more selective in their return choices) but there wasn’t much of a change there. Touchdowns increased — we saw noteworthy scores in games like Notre Dame-Michigan, Penn State-Appalachian State, and Ole Miss-Texas Tech — but considering returns of 40-plus yards decreased, I’m guessing that won’t continue.

Average resulting field position did shift from 26.1 to 24.8. Over time, that could be significant. But it hasn’t made an initial difference; Week 1 scoring averages increased from 29.3 points per game in 2017 to 29.8 in 2018.

We’ll check on these averages again later in the season, but one thing is certain after one week with the new rule: though the frequency of kick returns has diminished, there has been no grand change in the way the game is played or consumed.

The NFL’s making kickoff changes as well. Football changes at its own pace. Usually that pace is glacial.

But in seven years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in one specific aspect of the game, and we’ve found that it really hasn’t changed much of anything.

That’s probably a sign that we can do away with kickoffs. Bring on the fourth-and-15.

(By the way, if we did the fourth-and-15 thing as Schiano suggested, we should probably do it from the 35 or 40. Net punting averages are usually around 37 yards or so, and doing it from the 30 would increase scoring by quite a bit.)