Part II: The NFL Wedge Ban & Its Effect on Kick Returns (Super Bowl Hype Edition)

By Jonathan Adler

The NFL outlawed the wedge in 2009

Earlier this season, I examined whether the NFL wedge blocking ban had meaningfully affected kickoff returns through the first eight games. (View November’s post) Back then, at the season’s midway point, I found that the wedge ban had not caused a statistically significant change in kick return length. But a lot has changed since November. The Seahawks hired Pete Carroll, the Redskins fired Jim Zorn, and Al Davis spent New Year’s shooting bullets at Tom Cable’s feet screaming, “Dance, Cable! Dance!” The past few months have brought considerable changes to the league, but was the effect of the wedge ban one of them?

Intended to enhance player safety, the ban prohibits more than two players from blocking together. Before the ban’s first season, coaches, players, and the media wondered whether new blocking schemes would result in free-running kick returners or dominating coverage units. Now that the 2009 regular season has concluded, we can see the complete results.My methodology is the same as it was at midseason, so please reference my previous post for a quick refresher. Using individual team averages, I calculated an adjusted average kick return length. From 2006-2008, the three seasons immediately preceding the wedge ban, the adjusted average kick return was 22.67 yards. By the end of the 2009 season, the full season adjusted kick return average was 22.64 yards. So in a wedge-less season, the average kick return was shortened by only 0.03 yards (about an inch). This staggeringly small discrepancy between kickoff returns with and without wedge blocking is noticeably minuscule, and we can conclude (with the help of a t-test) that the wedge ban has not significantly altered kick returns.

Wedge Seasons, 2006-2008: 22.67 yards/KR (Standard Deviation: 1.719 yards)

Wedge-less Season, 2009: 22.64 yards/KR (Standard Deviation: 1.755 yards)

These results should be viewed favorably in the NFL’s Park Avenue office. The league succeeded in creating a rule that they believe enhanced player safety without seriously altering the game on the field. Proper study is required to determine whether players are, in fact, safer, but if they are, then these results suggest that we shouldn’t mourn the loss of the wedge. However, the ban’s effect may change in future seasons as creative special teams coaches explore different schemes that exploit the absence of the wedge. So it’s something to keep an eye on.

So please, don’t lie awake worrying about the wedge ban any longer. Enjoy the Super Bowl. And when watching the opening kick, don’t shed a tear for the wedge.

Another interesting note: In November, the 2009 season’s adjusted average stood at 23.31 yards. By the end of the season, it fell to 22.64 yards. Kick returns in the second half of the season were shorter. This trend appears in other seasons, as well. Why? Most likely because as a season progresses, inclement weather creates tougher kicking conditions. And shorter kicks, in general, mean shorter returns.

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