Percy Harvin returns a kickoff for a touchdown in 2009. How has the rule change moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line at the start of last season impacted returns in the league?Player safety has been one of the hottest topics around the sports world in recent years. The more we learn about injuries such as concussions, the better equipped leagues are in their efforts to protect their players.
One of the first major steps taken by the NFL was moving the kickoff spot to start the 2011 season, from the 30-yard line to the 35. As a result, touchbacks are way up and kick returns are way down.
NFL touchback percentage
Oddly enough, touchback percentages league-wide were on the rise prior to the change. From 2001 to 2005, between 8 and 9 percent of all kickoffs went for touchbacks each year. As the chart on the right shows, we began seeing a significant spike in 2006.
There were a total of 2,137 kick returns in 2005. Despite the touchback percentage nearly doubling by 2010, there were still 2,033 kick returns, partially due to an increase in scoring that resulted in more kickoffs.
The only thing left for the NFL to do to limit the risk of full-speed collisions on kickoffs was to limit the number of returns, and that seems to have been accomplished with the rule change.
After moving the kickoff yard line, the number of touchbacks league-wide skyrocketed from 416 in 2010 to 1,120 in 2011. Touchbacks became the norm as the percentage rose to 43.5 percent. It has crept even closer to a 50-50 split this year with a 47.4 percent touchback rate through 48 games.
NFL kickoff return TDs
After 10 straight seasons in which at least 80 percent of kicks were returned, just 53.0 percent have been returned since the change. A small change in the kickoff location had a significant impact on the number of returns after just one year.
If that isn't enough for the NFL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has a radical idea to reduce kickoff returns by eliminating them from the game.
Schiano suggested that all kickoffs be replaced with a situation similar to one in which a team would normally punt. Instead of kicking off from their own 35-yard line, teams would get the ball at their own 30 in a fourth-down situation with 15 yards to go. They would have the option to punt away or go for it and essentially replace onside kicks.
While the idea will likely never turn into anything more than that, Schiano has done his research. Historic conversion percentages for fourth-and-15 plays are right on par with onside kick recoveries by the kicking team.
Since 2001, 125 onside kicks have been recovered in 583 attempts, equating to a rate of 21.4 percent. In that same timeframe, teams have converted on fourth-and-15 at a 21.8 percent rate (17-of-78).
Schiano’s idea is certainly outside the box, but it does offer another way to improve player safety while keeping the percentages intact.