Inside Slant: A spike in touchbacks

Kick after kick, it seemed, we saw the same thing Monday night at Sports Authority Field: touchback, touchback, touchback.

Of the 11 kickoffs in the Denver Broncos' 37-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders, in fact, eight went for touchbacks. And of the three that were returned, one was an intentionally short kick designed to keep the ball away from Broncos returner Trindon Holliday.

I realize that Denver's altitude allows for longer kicks, and it's true that the game featured two of the NFL's strongest legs in the Broncos' Matt Prater and the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski. Still, I departed the stadium with an anecdotal sense that we're seeing touchbacks much more frequently this season.

Research from ESPN Stats & Information confirms that is the case. Through three games, we've seen touchbacks on 62.6 percent of kickoffs. That's up from 44.1 percent last season and 43.5 percent in 2011, the first two years of the NFL's return to the 35-yard line for kickoffs.

The chart provides the details, including the important fact that kicks aren't going any longer on average than previous years. It's possible that the average for otherwise longer kicks is being pulled down by more intentionally shorter distances, but that would just be a guess. In either case, kickoff schemes have grown more successful than ever at putting the ball in an unreturnable spot.

(To be sure this wasn't a trend based on good weather early in the season, I checked the first three weeks of the previous two seasons. The touchback averages were basically unchanged from the 40-45 percent range.)

The bottom line is that teams with dangerous kickoff returners have lost some frequency of impact. Holliday has two returns this season. The Raiders' Jacoby Ford has five. The Chicago Bears' Devin Hester has eight, but five came in one game and the other three have been spread over two. The Minnesota Vikings drafted Cordarrelle Patterson with the intent of using him on kickoff returns, but he has managed to get his hands on only seven over three games.

Some viewed the NFL's 2011 rule changes as the first step in eliminating kickoffs altogether. If this year plays out the way it has started, they might also serve as Step 2 as well.