By Jonathan Adler
Almost every NFL game begins a little differently this season. In the wake of mounting player injuries on kickoffs, the NFL banned kick return teams from “wedge blocking.” Previously, three or four blockers on the return team would often block together, forming a wall aimed at stopping coverage players from tackling the kick returner. With the ban, no more than two players are permitted to block together on kickoffs.
Quoted in an August New York Times article, Tom Quinn, the Giants’ special teams coordinator predicted, “the kickoff return average is probably going to go up.” Meanwhile, others thought more man-on-man blocking would benefit the coverage team, and return yardage would decline. So, eight weeks into the first wedge-less season, how has the ban changed kick returns?
Are returners getting pounded without this classic blocking scheme? Are they flourishing with a more spread out field? Or has the effect been negligible?
Using data from Stats Inc., I compared kick return data from the last three complete “wedge seasons” (2006-2008) to the first eight weeks of the “wedge-less” 2009 season. Because I did not have access to kick-by-kick data, I compiled a KR average for each team in each season (NYG 06: 20.1 yds, PHI 09: 20.3 yds, etc.) I used an average of these team averages in order to produce the means I’d be comparing. The resulting means are as follows:
Wedge Seasons, 2006-2008: 22.67 yards/KR
Wedge-less Season, 2009: 23.21 yards/KR
So far this season, the mean kick return is longer than it was in the three previous wedge seasons. On the surface, it appears that returners are running with greater success without the wedge, and that Tom Quinn can finally open his own psychic parlor. However, the results of a two-sample t-test illustrate that this season’s “wedge-less” returns have not significantly deviated from previous “wedge” seasons. My resulting t-value of t=1.115 indicates that this season’s returns are statistically indistinguishable from the previous three seasons.
This result is pretty surprising. The ban on wedge blocking has not significantly altered kick return yardage. Rules are now more restrictive for return teams, and things haven’t changed (and they might be improving). If Tom Quinn thought returns would improve, we have to wonder whether teams were optimizing their return strategies before the ban. Were coaches hesitant to experiment with new schemes?
This analysis is far from perfect. Most notably, the 2009 season has a lot more football left to be played, and as teams adjust their schemes, we may see changes in kick returns. And as the season goes on, weather may shorten kickoff length and decrease average return length.** Importantly, without kick-by-kick data, my analysis glosses over the data’s true variances. By using an average of individual team averages, I aimed to formulate a passable substitute. In averaging the team averages, rather than simply dividing ‘League KR yards’ by ‘Total KRs’, each team’s returns are weighted equally, rather than the teams with the most returns (the worst teams) receiving the bulk of the weight in my calculations. With a full season of data, and kick-by-kick information at hand, there is much to be learned about the wedge’s absence.
In the end, the wedge blocking ban was instituted as a safety concern. But there’s really no magic rule to prevent savage hits like these from taking place.
**This idea has been revised since I originally posted. Thanks to bubqr and Daniel for their comments on this point.