Inside Slant: Impact of kickoff rule change

At one point this season, the NFL was seeing touchbacks on nearly two-thirds of its kickoffs. That pace slowed a bit as the weather turned colder, but I thought it was worth checking on another potential byproduct of the NFL's 2011 decision to move the kickoff point to the 35-yard line.

If it appears to you that returners are taking it back from deeper in the end zone than before, then you're right. The average return this season has come from one yard deep. In 2010, the last year the NFL used the 30-yard line for kickoffs, the average return came from the 6-yard line.

I don't have a breakdown for how many of those have started in places where returners never considered it before -- i.e., 7-9 yards deep. But given the new average, it's safe to say that returners are pushing the previously acceptable limits. Minnesota Vikings rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, the NFL's leading returner with an average of 33.6 yards, has a pair of touchdown returns from distances (105 and 109 yards) that would have rarely been attempted before the rule change.

After crunching the numbers with help from ESPN Stats & Information, here's what we can say about where the rule change has taken us:

  • Players are starting their average runback about five yards deeper than they were before.

  • Even so, the percentage of kickoffs that end in touchbacks has tripled since 2010 -- even with the dip since September.

  • The NFL's hope was to improve player safety on kickoffs, presumably by limiting their total. But as it stands now the league is on pace for more returns in 2013 than there were in 2010, possibly due to an increase in scoring.

  • The average drive is starting at about the 23-yard line, or about five yards further back than it did in 2010.

  • Kickoff distance and return averages have not changed significantly.

You can see the exact figures in the chart. I think the big point to be gleaned is that, as with many rule changes, teams find ways to adjust in a competitive fashion. Three times the number of touchbacks hasn't diminished the kickoff return as a weapon, and the five-yard shift in field position hasn't derailed record-breaking offensive production.