Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Dec 2016

NFL Is Botching Kickoff Returns

A lot of readers have asked me to run numbers on kickoff returns this year, to find out if returners really are making a mistake by taking it out of the end zone so often. I never have found the time, so it's nice that Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight has done it for me.

"If the entire league had simply taken a knee on these 356 kickoffs it returned out of the endzone, it would have saved a combined 1,108 yards of field position."

So stop taking the damn kickoffs out of the end zone. Stop it already. Just stop.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 16 Dec 2016

10 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2016, 8:34pm by LionInAZ


by Steve in WI :: Fri, 12/16/2016 - 5:59pm

Obviously there are egregious examples of guys taking the ball out when they shouldn't, and giving up a ton of field position. However, based on the numbers above, on average teams are losing 3.1 yards of field position by taking the ball out. There's a risk/reward equation to be considered, and I think two things are true:

1. There is some value to be assigned to the possibility of taking a return back for a touchdown or even taking the ball to midfield, and that needs to be factored in to the discussion of whether it's better to return it or not. Off the top of my head I would guess that 3.1 yards of field position is more valuable than the small chance of a big return (especially when factoring in injury risk and the chance of a flag wiping out the return anyway) but that's just a guess.

2. Most special teams coaches probably think their teams can do better than average, and some of them are right. Let's say a hypothetical team gives up only 0.1 yards of field position on average by taking the ball out instead of 3.1. For them, it's probably the right call to try for a big play. (And as the article mentions, as with most decisions the score and game situation makes a difference too. If you're down in the last 2 minutes of the game, it's probably worth gambling on a chance at a short field even if the more likely result is a few yards less than the touchback would get you).

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 4:05am

Re:1 ... yep, I wonder if the next question ought to be is it important whether your offense starts on the 22 or 25-yd line?

Because I suspect it isn't. You either have an offense that moves the ball competently or it doesn't.

What you don't want off a kickoff return is a fumble or to be backed up against the goal-line.

But returning the kick always gives you a chance at a touchdown.

Without thinking too hard about it, I'd probably coach my returners that as long as they can get the ball back out to the 20, then to always return the kick. But if they fail to reach the 20 they're in the shit.

by Richie :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 5:21am

I wish they would have provided more detailed team data.

But the Jacksonville point is interesting. In 2015 Jacksonville was in the bottom third of teams in percentage of kicks returned at 24%, and they averaged getting the ball at the 20.

This year, they are only attempting to return 9%. But, they are tied with Arizona for best average field position. Either Marqise Lee and/or Corey Grant are good at determining if they can get a good return, or the Jaguars have coached up their players to limit kick returns. (I think Jacksonville is one of the more forward thinking organizations in terms of analytics.)

Also of note: Jacksonville has no kick return TD's and a long run of 45 yards. Arizona doesn't have any returns either, but has at least 2 returns longer than 45 yards.

I wonder if median field position would tell us anything different than average field position (to mute the effects of really long or really short returns).

by RickD :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 3:18am

No player ever increased his earning power by taking a knee. So until coaches simply forbid their players from returning kickoffs, a change in policy is not going to happen.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 3:58am

Generally I agree.

I think in a year or two when coaches have seen enough data to realise that taking the 25-yd touchback, it will become the accepted norm.

by jtr :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 1:12pm

Totally agree about this. Especially since it's usually not a key player on the team that's doing the returns. When you have somebody like the third-string RB returning kicks, often the kick returns are just about the only opportunities the guy gets to make an impact. If you're getting one touch from scrimmage per game and receiving six kickoffs, it makes a lot of sense to try to return the ball every chance you get, since those are your only opportunities to impress the coaching staff and get some more playing time. Maybe teams should look to put more established players into the return role so they don't have as much to prove on every kickoff.

It would make a lot of sense to evaluate potential returners on their level of aggression as much as physical ability when you decide who gets the job. I imagine most special teams coaches tell the returner something like "you should usually kneel, but you can run it back if you see a really good look." It's like if an offensive coordinator puts in an optional deep shot on a passing play and tells the QB to only take it if it's wide open. If your QB is Tom Brady, he'll usually take a glance at it and then dutifully turn to his checkdown. If your QB is Rex Grossman, he's going to interpret that as an invitation to Unleash the Dragon.

by LionInAZ :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 8:28pm

There's an university saying: Professors teach only the things they learned before they got their degrees. You can make exactly the same argument about coaches.

The new kickoff rules are something hide-bound coaches aren't used to. They're by tradition conservative, meaning they stick by the status quo until they screw themselves.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 3:56am

I was surprised last week that after the Patriots fumbled a punt and then a kickoff to hand Baltimore consecutive short fields and get back into the game, that the Ravens then kicked off long enough that the Pats next return guy was able to take a knee in the endzone.

by OSS-117 :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 12:36pm

Average starting field position following a touchback is the 25 with a range of 25 to 25. Probably why most people make riskier investments over CDs or savings account. ROI much broader from a risk of a slightly smaller return to a jackpot.

League has massaged both ends of a return to encourage TBs and dissuade bringing it out. Moving the KO forward, moving the TBD out to 25. Not much more the league can do than that..... other than call tighter/more penalties on returns. I'm curious if penalties are up this year on returns?

Agree, there are some teams that seem to purposely kick it to the +/-3yd line. And as a Steeler fan, if I were an opposing ST coach, I would absolutely do that. Because they have no dangerous KO returners, and a near certainty of a penalty anyways.

I would not be surprised if there was a league mandate/emphasis on penalizing returns.

by LionInAZ :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 8:34pm

As a professional scientist, I hate the mean being promoted as an average when it's not appropriate. I'd like to know what the median KO return is under the new rule. The median should always be prefered when the distribution does not follow a Gaussian.