In an anticipated move to improve player safety, NFL owners approved a rule change that will move touchbacks on kickoffs to the 25-yard line.
As outlined by Kevin Seifert, after the league moved the kickoff yard line from the 30- to 35-yard line in 2011, the percentage of returned kickoffs has been cut in half, while the percentage of touchbacks increased by 350 percent (from 16 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2015).
Assuming coaches are looking to maximize the value of each kickoff return, can we expect the percentage of touchbacks to rise even further in the coming seasons?
Let’s crunch some numbers
We can measure the value of kickoff outcomes in terms of expected points: a team’s net scoring potential based on possession, down, distance and yard line. Expected points accounts for more than just yards. It factors in any possible play result, including penalties and turnovers.
A touchback is worth 0.29 net points to the receiving team.
An average kickoff return yielded an expected point value of 0.44, which equates to teams beginning their drives on their own 23-yard line. Excluding “abnormal” plays such as kickoffs out of bounds, desperation end-of-game laterals and onside kicks, this expected point value on returns rises even further to 0.59 net points.
In 2015 the math was simple: For a typical returnable kick, there was an advantage for teams to run it out of the end zone.
But what would be the smart play when the touchback yard line is moved up to the 25?
Looking at the same set of data, teams were expected to score 0.55 net points on drives that began on their own 25-yard line. That’s about the same value as the average kickoff return in 2015.
Therefore, moving the touchback on kickoffs to the 25-yard line puts the decision to return right at the point of indifference. If a team has a particularly strong returner, such as Cordarrelle Patterson, it makes sense to return a higher percentage of kickoffs, but if it has a below-average return game, the smart play would be to take the touchback.
Other factors such as weather and end-of-game situations will continue to play a role in a team’s decision to take the ball out. Ultimately it’s a break-even proposition in which there is not as clear an advantage for a team to run it out of the end zone as in seasons past.
Change of strategy for the kickoff team?
A large portion of the discussion thus far has been on the return team’s decision given the new kickoff rules. Many have suggested that in order to avoid touchbacks, the kicking team also might employ some strategy.
2nd ST coach on new touchback rule: "You may see more sky kicks or directional kicks to pin guys to the sideline to cover." (Like college.)
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 23, 2016
Others have noted that “mortar” kick, which sacrifices distance for hang time, could increase in popularity in an effort to pin teams inside the 25.
Given the return team’s advantage by starting 5 yards closer to the opponent's end zone, it’s not surprising that special teams coordinators are already looking for innovative ways to avoid touchbacks and limit “typical” returns. As Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders notes, that could even mean more surprise onside kicks because the penalty for failure is not as large.
Because of these changes in kicking strategy, a new rule designed to increased touchbacks to improve player safety could in fact lead to fewer touchbacks and more returns.