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.
First thanks for the analysis (and the other ones!).
“weather may shorten kickoff length to the benefit of returners.”
While I agree that average starting position after a KR will rise as the season goes because of weather, it won’t improve kick return yardage in my opinion. For example, increasing the kickoff lenght by 10 yards give the returner (10/2) = 5 yards more to run (same for the coverage team) and should increase the average return yardage overall. Unless touchbacks are included in this KR yardage, I see it dropping as the season goes on.
But if it doesn’t, I’ll be quite surprised.
And maybe to add to the list of hypothesis : teams have to perfect their kickoff coverage schemes, that were designed for years to counter wedges, along the season.
I remember a high school game against our cross town rival. The rival was taking a kickoff, and formed an actual ten man wedge in front of the receiver. One of our defensive players ran around the outside of the wedge and tackled the receiver from behind as he caught the ball. So I’m not surprised the wedge works worse than man to man blocking. It requires that you leave defenders open.
First of all, David, that’s a great 10-man wedge story.
I agree with bubqr that bad/cold weather may make the average starting position better for the return team, but the average kick return will actually be worse. Obviously, it is easier to return the ball 25 yards starting at the 1 than the 10.
Very interesting analysis and something to consider as the season progresses. Really makes you wonder why Quinn would not have abolished the wedge before this season. How many teams were actually using a wedge?
Kick by kick data can be gleaned by using player return data and then adjusting for team’s average starting field position.
I’d say that there a couple of important factors. I believe kicks go deeper (and thus I would think longer returns) in the early months, so as you said, the cold weather should decrease it.
Secondly, I would wonder if the median has decreased, and something in the wedge-less world has made kickoff returns for touchdowns more common, so the mean is up while the median is down.
Finally, it is really interesting if it could be found that teams were not optimizing their kickoff returns. If Quinn predicted kickoff returns would go up, had he been wedge-less before the rule change? If not, why not?
Nice analysis. Any chance we can get some numbers concerning return TD’s, 20+, and 40+ yard returns versus previous years? While the average may not go up significantly I am curious as to the number of touchbacks and large returns in the data set.