Recent rules changes affecting kickoff returns stirred debate about likely consequences.
With touchbacks already on the rise, all agreed the NFL would see more of them as kickoffs moved from the kicking team's 30- to 35-yard lines. A new rule limiting coverage teams to a 5-yard running start could help returners gain more ground on the kickoffs they do return, but with the coverage teams moving five yards closer to the returners, it's tough to say for sure which side comes out ahead, or by how much.
"If you're kicking off from the 35 and you have really good cover guys, maybe you're more likely to drop that ball down at the 1-yard line and force them to return it and try to get them inside the 20," Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said from the NFL owners meeting last month. "If you're not as confident in your return team or maybe you're facing a really good returner, maybe you try to bomb it over his head."
Weather, a kicker's leg strength, the quality of the return specialist and other factors influence teams' strategies on kickoffs. Some teams that favored shorter kicks in certain situations might feel more comfortable going for touchbacks now that their kickers are five yards closer to the end zone. Some might follow Schwartz's thinking by aiming higher kickoffs for the 1-yard line and trusting their coverage teams to create favorable field position.
With data provided by Marty Callinan of ESPN Stats & Information, I looked at each of the 24,670 regular-season kickoffs since 2001, searching for clues. I filtered out onside kicks and touchbacks, then calculated average drive starts based on two factors: kickoff yard lines and where returners fielded the ball.
I wanted to see whether rules changes would lead to significant changes in field position, which can affect scoring, as Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats has noted.
Returners had better averages on balls they fielded deeper in their own territory, but the gains weren't enough to realize improvements in field position. Field position appeared to suffer quite a bit for teams returning kickoffs that originated from the 35.
As much as I wanted to break a long return with this information, it really wasn't feasible. The information carried significant limitations, starting with these two:
There were 20,299 qualifying kickoffs from the 30-yard line, but only 115 from the 35. There weren't enough from the 35 to compare the results, and I did not have access to detailed kickoff information from 1993 and earlier, when teams kicked off from the 35.
In the past, coverage teams faced no limitations on how far they could run to build speed before kickoffs. That made it tough to calculate how the rules changes would affect averages for return distances or drive starts.
In 1993, the last year teams kicked off from the 35, players scored four touchdowns on kickoff returns. The figure was 23 last season, including three by Seattle's Leon Washington and two by Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling.
One interesting note, from Pro Football Reference: Scoring increased from 18.7 points per game in 1992 and 1993 to 20.3 points per game in 1994. It has remained in the 20s ever since, no surprise given that other changes have favored offenses. But scoring was also in the 20s for 12 consecutive seasons before 1991.
I would like to see how kicking off from the 30 instead of the 35 changed field position and, in turn, changed scoring after 1993. I would then like to know what changes to expect along those lines for 2011. Because if these changes affect quarterbacks and reduce scoring, we'll hear from offensive-minded head coaches.
2001-2010 Kickoff Returns: From the 30
A look at average return length in yards and average drive start by yard line for the 20,299 kickoffs from the 30-yard line since 2001, based on where the ball was caught. Stats exclude touchbacks, onside kicks and kickoffs that traveled out of bounds.
2001-2010 Kickoff Returns: From the 35
A look at average return length in yards and average drive start by yard line for the 115 kickoffs from the 35-yard line since 2001, based on where the ball was caught. Stats exclude touchbacks, onside kicks and kickoffs that traveled out of bounds.