By Kurt Bullard
It’s only been two weeks since the start of the NFL season, but in a league with such a small schedule, it’s often tempting to draw conclusions very quickly; after all, it is already one-eighth of the way through the regular season, and soon enough, it’ll be early February.
One part of the game that I’ve personally kept an eye on thus far is the effect of the new touchback rule on kickoffs. I’ve always found special teams play more interesting than I think most of the populace does—especially the kickoff, whether regular or onsides—so this rule change was of keen interest to me. To summarize the rule change for those unfamiliar, touchbacks on kickoffs now bring the offense out to the 25-yard line, rather than the 20-yard line. However, touchbacks for any other play (e.g. punts, interception returns) stay at the 20-yard line.
In March, I took a look at how the kickoff rules might impact the league in two facets: how often kicks would be returned, and by how much scoring would increase. While the analysis is laid out in detail, the takeaway was that, barring a change in behavior, returners would take touchbacks around 80% of the time (returning kicks just 20% of the time), while scoring would increase by about 9 points per team over the course of a season.
However, predictions are just that: predictions. Now that we’re two weeks into the season, there is at least some data to try to identify any prevailing trends in the kickoff game thus far.
I looked at all kick returns without a penalty that occurred outside the last 30 seconds of each quarter. That criteria yielded 290 kickoffs thus far on the year. This isn’t the greatest sample size, but considering there’s only two weeks of data, there’s merit in at least investigating general trends.
According to Yahoo research, kick returners elected not to take the ball out of the end zone on 41.1% of kickoffs in 2015. This year, it would make sense to predict that fewer kicks would be returned, given that there is a 5-yard (or, in expected points added, 0.33 EPA) incentive to just take a knee.
This year, for kickoffs that traveled into the end-zone, 20% have been returned—a figure right in line with my prediction in March. However, that analysis relied on a key assumption—that kickers would not starting pooching kicks. Yet, 20% of kicks this season have fallen short of the end zone, all of which, by definition, cannot be touchbacks.
Now, because of the jump in kicks falling short of the end zone, touchbacks this year have accounted for 39.8% of potential returns, which is obviously just a slight decrease compared to last year, and is nowhere near a statistically significant drop-off. Because of the increased availability and use of pooch kicks, the league’s goal to make kickoffs less dangerous may have just incentivized teams to encourage opponent returns.
Another interesting split to look at is the average starting field position for kicks that fell short of the goal line versus those that did not. For kicks that did not make the end zone, the average starting field position has been the 25.5-yard line, which is worse than just trying to force a touchback. While not a statistically significant difference from the 25-yard line, this shows that the pooch plan hasn’t, on average, paid off yet. On the other hand, kicking the ball into the end zone actually results in worse average starting field position for the offense: the 24.5-yard line. This is a product of bad decision making; when a kick returner has taken it out of the end zone this year (which has happened 21% of the time), they’ve ended up on average at the 22.7-yard line. From this, it seems that returners still have not gained the judgment necessary to effectively choose between returning the rock and taking a touchback.
It’s very early, and hence why no formal analysis was done beyond two-group testing. It’s way too early in the year to make conclusions, and returners and kickers will most likely spend the vast majority of the season continuing to optimize their strategy. Time will tell if this rule change makes one of the most dangerous plays of the game safer.