Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Mar 2011

NFL Considers Moving Kickoffs to 35, Touchbacks to 25

Where to begin... The goal of these rule changes would be to reduce injuries, since kickoffs are responsible for more injuries than any other type of play. However, this would basically remove the kickoff return man as an offensive weapon. They moved the kickoff line from the 30 to the 35 nearly twenty years ago, and do you realize how much stronger kickers are now than they were then? Bill Cundiff last year had 89 percent of his kickoffs go at least 65 yards. With the new system, those would all either be returned from the end zone, or touchbacks. This move would also mean that kickoffs in general would become more like punts, with kickers practicing more pop-up style kicks in hopes of pinning the other team behind the 25 without allowing a long return. It would be a huge transformation of the way the NFL plays special teams.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 16 Mar 2011

65 comments, Last at 20 Mar 2011, 6:18pm by Jerry

Comments

1
by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 11:47am

As a Colts fan, I am wholeheartedly in favor of eliminating the kickoff return man as an offensive weapon.

26
by Purds :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 3:40pm

O,God yes! We Colt fans haven't seen anything remotely resembling an advantage in the kick off return/coverage game since the early 90's.

2
by battlered90 (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 11:52am

Kick returns cause more injuries than any other play. What is the difference in the percentage of injuries caused by kickoffs and caused by other plays? If it is a drastic difference, maybe kickoffs should be eliminated all together. This would be a huge change and take away a lot of interesting aspects of games (onside kicks, special teams touchdowns, etc.) But the league once had no forward pass and then had a rule that an incompletion was a turnover. Perhaps the new emphasis on penalizing big hits and taking away the wedge blocking will make a difference with injuries during kick returns. I think football fans should get used to the idea of drastic rule changes though. The sport is too dangerous the way its played now.

10
by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:34pm

The forward pass has always been legal in the NFL. College football legalized it in 1906.

25
by wr (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 3:19pm

'Legalized' is a bit of misnomer here. The forward pass was implemented
in response to an ultimatum from Teddy Roosevelt : Do something about the
death rate in football, or it will be made illegal.

56
by IB (not verified) :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 9:26pm

Kinda sorta. There's a new book coming out in a month or two about the TR situation, but there was no forward pass ultimatum.

3
by IAmJoe (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:06pm

A legitimate point that has to be considered when discussing the idea of getting rid of kickoffs (which I am in favor of):

You're cutting down the commericals significantly, which makes it a no-go for the networks. Remember, every change in possession has a commercial before and after the kickoff. If you get rid of kickoffs, you only have the 1 commercial break between possessions. At that point, either the networks cut back (Oh god they need to), or they find other ways to get their commercials in, to keep their ad revenue up.

The other big thing that would disappear with the elimination of the kickoff (besides the Chicago Bears): the onside kick. Something would have to be figured out to put in a chance-y way of getting the ball back after scoring.

6
by Southern Philly :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:20pm

"Remember, every change in possession has a commercial before and after the kickoff."

Not quite. There is a certain number of commercial breaks that must be run per half, and most of the time the best way to get them in is before and after the kickoff. But it is not required. If a team scores pretty quickly on the first possession, you're only going to get one break. If they take 6 minutes to drive down the field, you're going to get them doubled up.

What would likely happen is the breaks would be longer to compensate the lost total of breaks.

4
by BlueStarDude :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:09pm

I think this is a step in the right direction. I've been in favor of just eliminating the kick return for safety reasons for a couple of years now, but if you do that you lose the onside kick, which is quite a bit worse than just losing the excitement of a good return.

They should definitely do away with the KR in OT and just have the "receiving" team start at the 20 (home team gets to choose ball or wind, no coin toss), and keep it straight sudden death from there.

51
by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 2:17pm

I completely agree with eliminating kickoffs. I don't feel like they add anything to the game actually.

I also think a great way to handle overtime is to bid for position. Team A says "ball and 19", Team be says "ball and 17", team A says "great lets go"!

59
by RickD :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 5:28pm

If there are no kickoffs, there are no onside kicks.

I don't see that as a desirable outcome.

5
by Joseph :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:11pm

I think if you do one, you must do both--moving TB's out to the 25 makes it that much harder on the defense to stop a score (don't know what the #'s would be, but scoring would increase). However, if the counter is to make it easier for deep kicks or touchbacks, then Aaron is right--the emphasis for kickoffs would be for a high directional kickoff beween 60 & 65 yds. Almost all returners now will bring a kick out even if they're a yd deep.
On the other hand, wouldn't you want a VERY aware return man, who would be able to diagnose if a kick would go OOB, or bounce into the endzone, thus increasing field position?
I think these changes would mean the end of the "kickoff specialist," but would place an even greater emphasis on the return man--he must be aware AND shifty. For example, the kickoff is high and short, coming down at the 5 yd line (what would be the 10 with present rules). At present, that type of kick almost guarantees starting past the 25--and (if FO could run the numbers) would probably give an average start at the 30. Not good for the kicking team. But under these proposed rules, we back everything up 5 yds--so they start between the 20 & 25--decent for the kicking team, and (iirc) slightly above average, compared to the present rules. If the kicking team has a good coverage unit, or the return team is below average, then you might pin them inside the 20--now that's great. Of course, this would cause a drop in scoring, where the TB coming to the 25=more scoring. In other words, they probably balance out over the course of a season--and probably most teams wouldn't notice much of a change either way, at least not outside the realm of normal variability. However, teams that tend to have above-average ST in many aspects--esp. regarding kickoffs--would probably see the benefit.

7
by opticallog :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:23pm

I'm curious how this would effect the decisions coaches make with regard to punting / going for it on 4th down when they are just outside of FG range. It would be nice if the increased yardage from touchbacks would help them grow some balls and go for it.

12
by Travis :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 1:13pm

Under the proposal, touchbacks on non-kickoffs would remain at the 20, so there wouldn't be much impact on kick/go for it decisions.

8
by Lance :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:25pm

This is really quite fascinating. It wasn't too long ago (1994, to be exact) that the NFL moved the kickoff back to the 30. This was done in the name of generating excitement, as kickers were less likely to boom their kicks into the end zone (or at least not far into the end zone), compelling players to run them back. I don't have the statistics in front of me, but I'd be curious to know how this effected average starting position (pre 1994 and post 1994) and if there was a change in kickoff returns for a TD per year for the league. If there were a noticeable uptick in those changes (and I'm under the impression that there was), then this would have had a significant impact on overtime-- a topic of much debate in the last decade or so.

I, for one, am happy to hear about the change back. I never liked leagues tweaking rules to favor scoring or "action" under the (mistaken) impression that this would lead to more popularity. More interesting is the idea of adding five yards to the touchback. I assume (from the context of the article) that this would be an added incentive to take the touchback and therefor reduce somewhat the injury-causing mayhem of the kickoff return.

How much would this change yardage output per year, I wonder? Each time a touchback is taken, QBs, WRs, and RBs would miss out on a chance to get an extra five yards. Over the course of a year, that's perhaps 160 yards. As we think about comparative statistics over seasons, it may be useful to think that a particularly good season for a RB (if this rule is put into place) might be a few yards less than before. Maybe.

34
by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 7:14pm

I'd be curious to know if injuries on kick returns went up when they made that change in '94. If they didn't, it'd be reasonable to assume there won't be a huge decrease in injuries from these changes.

9
by Dean :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:33pm

Kickoffs were moved back to the 30 because touchbacks are boring.

I suspect what this would lead to is a new style of kicker who can "pooch" a kickoff.

14
by kramer (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 1:49pm

This was my first thought. Teams with quality kickers/special teams units could do more directional kicking with the goal of keeping the receiving team inside the 25.

35
by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 7:18pm

I don't see how these changes would improve the game from a fan's perspective. And nobody likes to see guys get hurt, but these tend to be guys whose only role is on special teams. At some point the NFL needs to accept the fact it's a contact sport and you're not going to completely eliminate injuries without completelely altering the game.

36
by zlionsfan :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 7:26pm

A cynic would say that it's exactly the type of move the NFL would make: more of a PR gain than anything else. Look, we're doing something about injuries. (And it doesn't involve things like line play or tackling or such, things that affect more plays and thus would both make more of a change and also possibly be harder to push through.)

I'm a cynic, so that's what I say. Nice start, but there's a lot more to be done.

58
by Roscoe :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 2:42pm

If "pooch" kickoff specialists develop, I am not sure the rule makes anyone safer. Say you are the return guy and a pooch kick is headed your way. You are on the 5, and there is a gunner with you in his sights. I don't think the coach wants you to fair catch the ball on your 5 yard line. But you can't just let it bounce as you would a punt, because it's a live ball. So I am guessing you try to catch the ball and take the shot.

11
by Crushinator :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 12:59pm

I don't think I like this move too much as it seems like it would take away a key strategic element from the game.

That said, I wonder if this would embolden teams to try intermediate range onside kicks more as the advantage of a touchback would be less and you'd be kicking from further forward. If there was a penalty that moved the kickoff further forward, it might be advantageous to always just start onside kicking if you're at their 50 - failure is only costing you around 15 yards.

15
by jimbohead :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 1:53pm

At that point, you might actually try a free kick. Its only a 60 yd field goal, and missing it means touchback at 25. I imagine if you did the full analysis, the EV of a free kick from the 50 would be higher than EV of an onside kick.

17
by tuluse :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 1:57pm

I don't think you are allowed to do that. I know I've seen some kickers get the ball through the uprights on a kick off, but it's just a touchback, no points.

18
by jimbohead :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 2:03pm

ahh google reveals i'm getting my rules confused. What I'm thinking of is a "fair catch kick," where a team can attempt a field goal unopposed directly after a fair catch with no time coming off the clock. Apologies. I knew I saw the Cards and the Niners attempt this at some point, but I guess I misremembered the situation.

http://quirkyresearch.blogspot.com/2006/07/nfl-fair-catch-kick-attempts....

13
by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 1:35pm

I've been in favor of abolishing kickoffs and punts for years. they're stupid and enormously wasteful in terms of the number of players on the team who are there solely for special teams and the number of injuries they cause.

29
by BJR :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 4:12pm

I too feel that my excitement at the occasional good kick-off return is usually outweighed by my frustration at the delays caused by injuries and penalties which occur during them.

In particular I find in some games it often seems that a return play cannot go by without a flag being thrown. I've heard it said that officials could call offensive holding on every play if they really wanted to; I really do believe that a flag could be thrown on every return play for holding or illegal block in the back if the officials were so inclined. These penalties are, unless flagrant, pretty much impossible for the casual observer to spot in real time, so to me it usually just appears random whether or not they are called and that is not a good thing.

16
by tuluse :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 1:56pm

It might just be because I'm a Bears fan, but I can't say I like this move. I enjoy watching special teams play, and I feel that having the players decide where the ball ends up rather than the leg strength of the kicker is preferable.

19
by Jimmy :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 2:14pm

Teams will still have to punt to Hester and that is where he does most of his damage anyway. I would agree that having every kick sail into the endzone would be quite dull.

54
by thebuch :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 5:37pm

But that can be made up for in other ways, as now teams might be able to make more roster decisions based on things other than special teams and perhaps the quality of offenses and defenses would increase, thus making those parts of the game more exciting.

If I was a Bears fan, I'm not going to lie, I'd hate this rule change though.

20
by drobviousso :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 2:20pm

We have PATs, which are completely rote, with a few foul ups that happen here and there and the option to go for 2 if you are in dire straights. This seems like it will turn kick offs into the same thing.

I don't know if I have an opinion on if the changes is good or not, but it's worth mentioning that we already have a pretty significant rote down, and it doesn't ruin the game.

52
by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 2:22pm

It doesn't ruin it, but I would much rather just give 7 points for a score. But I am a purist (in the game design sense, not in the football sense).

60
by RickD :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 5:30pm

The game is called "football" after all.

21
by Sjt (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 2:27pm

Doesn't the increased penalty for a kickoff combined with the shorter field give teams the incentive to try pooch kicks, which will still result in plenty of returns, collisions and injuries?

61
by RickD :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 5:31pm

Yes. If the NFL really wanted to increase the number of touchbacks, they would make them more attractive to the kicking team, not the returning team.

22
by MJK :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 3:06pm

The moved up touchback is presumably to incentivize touchbacks more, and prevent injuries on returns. However, I don't think it will work nearly as well, due to the law of unintended consequences.

First of all, how many injuries happen when gunners and protectors collide at around the 25-35 yard line? This generally occurs before (or simultaneously with) the return man deciding whether or not to run it out. So more touchbacks might not necessarily cut down on injuries as much as they hope.

Secondly, because touchbacks are now worse for the kicking team as well as better for the receiving team. Several people have already pointed out in this thread that kickers will now try to "pop up" the kick, which could lead to more injuries because you get players colliding before the kick even comes down.

Also, I wonder what this will do to the frequency of squib kicks?

23
by Scott P. (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 3:09pm

Such a change would make onside kicks more attractive.

24
by John (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 3:10pm

Hmm, on the topic of safety and thus eliminating punts, what would the consequences be of making a turnover on downs take place wherever the ball ends up? Peyton Manning occasionally treats long 3rd downs as "punts," throwing a ball with a decent chance of being intercepted because there's also a chance at getting a long completion.

QB lofts the ball downfield on 4th down, and if it falls incomplete, the opposing team takes over there. That would potentially encourage more 4 down play, which I think everyone here would appreciate, and getting rid of punts can't be a bad thing for player safety. Teams can always run instead, of course, and intercepting on 4th down would no longer be a generally stupid play.

Seems more exciting to me, but my favorite team has a pretty good QB.

27
by Jake (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 3:50pm

All this thinking about the game theory implications of moving the kickoff made me think about an overtime rule I haven't seen discussed much (though I also haven't looked), a bidding based system. Basically it's a sudden death format (nothing weird about FGs on first possessions not winning unless a defensive stop follows them) where each team offers to start with the ball progressively closer to their own goalline. Home team can start the bidding so if they want the ball at their own 1 yard line they can have it there, sudden death, or else offer a higher yard line bid.

28
by drobviousso :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 4:02pm

I've seen that bandied about, and I think it's a great option. If done correctly, it would make for great TV as well.

30
by qwerty (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 4:35pm

Why not just eliminate kickoffs completely. Every time the offensive team starts a new series following a scoring play or start of the game or second half, they can start at the their own 20 yard line.

This way you eliminate wasted roster spots on a specialized return man, a long distance kicker (see Vinatieri) and special teams guys who have no value other than their kamakazee play.

62
by RickD :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 5:33pm

...and a team down by 3 TDs in the 4th quarter has essentially no chance of catching up via onside kicks. Indeed, a team down by 14 points with 5 minutes left is screwed. Even if they get a TD, they probably won't get the ball back.

You've just killed a significant way that NFL football is an exciting game.

31
by JonFrum :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 6:01pm

The logic of this move demands the end of kickoffs. If kick returns cause injury, they how do you justify them at all?

Personally, I'd just get it over with and get rid of kicking in football. What's the point? Kickers are not football players - everyone agrees. The point after is virtually guaranteed, so why not just make a touchdown seven points and be done with it. Field goals are basically a reward for failure to scores a touchdown.

So let's get rid of special teams, and play Passball. This also has the virtue of solving the football/soccer problem, and shut up all those Hate-America nancy-boys who insist on pointing out the 'mistake' of stupid Americans.

32
by tuluse :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 6:10pm

The logic of this move demands the end of kickoffs. If kick returns cause injury, they how do you justify them at all?

All of football causes injuries.

I was going to respond to the rest of your post, but looking over it again it looks like you are parodying something, so meh.

38
by JonFrum :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 8:42pm

The point of the rule change is to cut down on injuries. It doesn't do so by modifying how the game is played, it simply cuts down on the number of times kick returns occur. So obviously, they think that it's the nature of kick returns, not how it's done, that is the problem. If that is so, then all kick returns should logically be eliminated. What they are doing is essentially to cut down on the number of times a player is legally allowed to spear an opposing player, or the number of times they can hit a defenseless player. It makes no sense.

And I'm not parodying anything. The point after is a waste of time. Kickers are, in fact, not considered football players by anyone but kicker's moms and dads. If you're going to eliminate kick returns, why not finish the job. Special teams is what happens while you're waiting for football. What other sport removes its players from the field during the game for a 'special team?' When you only have two players kicking on a team - and it's all they do - then the game is not 'football,' and the kickers are not football players. So why not just admit that the game evolved past its origins and move on?

41
by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 10:03pm

Gunners and returners aren't football players? You were better off when people thought it was a parody.

53
by JonFrum :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 4:48pm

You obviously have a problem with reading comprehension. You seem to see words that aren't there.

33
by Dice :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 6:45pm

Prefer to keep kicking game the way it is.

37
by BigWoody (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 8:00pm

We need some RaiderJoe logic on this topic. I haven't seen a RJ post in a long time. Did all the decertification/lockout nonsense cause him to go to the Sierra Nevada nuclear option?

40
by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 9:48pm

still aorund. Posted in M. Tanier Loin Leaning thrrad last week. will look over rets of this therad and post other stuff later tongiht after Justified ends. Vrey excellent show like Sierra Nevada of TV shows

39
by PatsFan :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 9:18pm

One of the other proposals the Competition Committee is considering is to reduce the number of allowed replay challenges to two (now it can be three if the coach gets his first two right) but have all scoring plays be booth-reviewed.

42
by MJK :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 10:18pm

I hate that idea, but then again, I would have done replay completely differently...give every team as many challenges as they want as long as they still have timeouts. If they lose the challenge, lose a timeout. And get rid of the stupid "inside 2 minutes it comes from upstairs"...leave it in the hands of the coach. So you'd have a maximum of 3 unsuccessful challenges per team per half, but probably less, and no limit on successful challenges, so you're not hurting a team if the refs are especially bad on a given day.

43
by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 10:33pm

I've never understood why successful challenges should count against a team. Particularly given they do the last 2 minutes from the booth, if you had coaches going 4-4 in games on challenges or something like that it'd be time to start replacing some officials.

46
by Jerry :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 2:46am

One part of the current system is to minimize the number of challenges, so as not to slow down the game too much. If a coach KNOWS he can have second and four instead of second and six, it's still not worth worth wasting a challenge.

48
by RC (not verified) :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 8:43am

Challenging the spot is an automatic failed challenge unless it nets you a first down or a score. His proposal (timeouts lost) would prevent this just as much as the current system

49
by Andrew Potter :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 9:32am

Challenging the spot isn't the only way for a trivial down-and distance change to occur. Was that 2-yard pass, ruled out of bounds, actually complete? Was that fumble at the 46, which your o-lineman recovered at the 48, really not a fumble? In the current system, it's still not worth bothering with a challenge over. If challenges were unlimited as long as you kept winning them, it might be.

That said, I still think it's fair to allow challenges as long as the team keeps winning them. It's not the coaches' fault if the referees keep making mistakes, and in a game like American football the play lends itself to that sort of system. The one additional change I'd like to see made in that event, however, is to emphasise to the referees that the decision needs to be blatantly wrong to be overturned - one look at each camera angle, and if that's not enough to be certain, then the call on the field stands.

63
by RickD :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 5:36pm

I love how the Competition Committee changes rules constantly, making long-term study of the game an essentially futile endeavor. Let's put these people in charge of Chess. "We feel that pawns are too weak, so now they can capture sideways as well as diagonally. To compensate, we're increasing the length of the knight's jump."

65
by Jerry :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 6:18pm

Long-term study is much less important to the NFL than selling more tickets or adding more TV viewers. If there were similar considerations for chess management, they would at least consider changes to make the game more spectator-friendly.

44
by Kal :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 10:33pm

What I really don't get is the double logic here.

So...one part is to move the kicks to the 35, making touchbacks more likely and thus fewer returns. Okay, that cuts down on injury! Yay!

And then we'll disincentivize touchbacks by making them back at the 25 instead of the 20. So that means...uh...people are going to not want to do touchbacks; not only is it less valuable to do so, but it's more likely to gain something compared to a touchback if you do a kick.

Here, want to minimize kick returns? Do the exact opposite of what was suggested. Make touchbacks mandatory if the ball crosses the end zone and make them start at the 15. Teams will be incentivized to kick it as far as they can (even low balls) and only rarely will kick returns happen outside of onside kicks, which rarely end up with injuries.

50
by dbostedo :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 9:55am

I'm guessing that they thought having touchbacks come out to the 25 would incentivize return men to stay in the end zone. My guess would be they're assuming that the kicking team will still just boom the ball into the end zone, despite the additional touch back yardage.

45
by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 03/16/2011 - 11:25pm

do not like rules chsnges all the tuimr. Too mich changing. Make rules and sitkc to thm

64
by RickD :: Sun, 03/20/2011 - 5:37pm

+1

47
by ammek :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 7:21am

I like the idea of more "pop-up style kicks": it would place more emphasis on technique and placement than on leg power, thereby reducing the gain from steroids. If it happens, though, I wonder if there will actually be a decrease in the number of injuries: aren't there almost as many injuries on punt plays as on kickoffs?

55
by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 03/17/2011 - 5:43pm

Think yhrtr are more injurits on kikckoffs than punts but dont have any nimbers handy

57
by ChargerJeff :: Fri, 03/18/2011 - 7:27pm

This would be great news for Nate Kaeding.