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07 Dec 2012

The Schiano Rule

Guest Column by Keith Goldner

Recently, Pro Football Talk published an article discussing potential plans to eliminate an opening kickoff entirely.

"Sean Gregory of TIME writes that one of the options being considered for replacing kickoffs entails giving the ball to the team that would have been kicking off at its own 30, automatically facing a fourth down and 15 yards to go. The team can then choose to punt or go for it, via fake punt or otherwise. 

In other words, the kickoff would be replaced with the punt, and the onside kick would be replaced with a fourth-down conversion roughly half the distance of Ray Rice’s recent catch-and-run."

The idea Roger Goodell is sharing with Gregory actually comes from Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano, who first talked about such an idea when he was still head coach at Rutgers. A huge change like this is certainly a long shot, but it's a bit less of one now that the idea has been publicly floated by the commissioner. With that in mind, I decided to run the numbers and see who this new rule would favor. A couple of things to note:

  • Surprise onside kicks would be replaced by fake punts. It is the same concept: the return team expects a deep kick based on formation, but the kicking team fakes.
  • Regular onside kicks would be replaced by fourth-and-15 attempts.
  • Punts can be blocked or botched with bad snaps -- regular kickoffs obviously cannot.
  • It would be very hard to force a touchback on a punt from the 30.
  • You could kick the ball out-of-bounds to prevent a return and the opposing team would not receive the ball at the 40-yard line automatically.
  • Teams can gain far more yards on a fourth-and-15 attempt than they could on an onside kick attempt.
  • This would be done for safety purposes. I question whether kickoffs are significantly more dangerous than punts (although I assume they are, otherwise this never would have been suggested).
  • There will be way more penalties on punts than there typically are on kickoffs -- including false starts.

I tried to incorporate as much as possible into the analysis. Here are the probability and frequency breakdowns, with an estimate of expected points (EP).

Based on the adjusted expected points value at the bottom, the punt would result in twice as many expected points as the current kickoff rule (1.15 versus 0.53) for the receiving team. The majority of that comes from the difference in average starting field position. Kickoffs from the 35 have resulted in an average starting field position at the 21.6, whereas punts from around the 30 result in a starting field position at the 30.4-yard line. This also assumes that teams will fake punt/go for it on the fourth-and-15 as frequently as teams attempt onside kicks, be they surprise or not.

The biggest difference other than those mentioned above (all the poor outcomes possible for punts) is the change in the probability of converting a surprise event. Surprise onside kicks convert at an extremely high 60 percent rate -- and should most likely be attempted way more frequently than they currently are. Fake punts from around 15 yards convert at roughly the same rate as a regular fourth-down attempt -- though keep in mind this is just an estimate since this scenario occurs extremely infrequently. The defense has a much better chance to stop a fake punt that has to convert 15 yards (either a 15-yard run or completion) than they do to recover a bouncing ball where the only requirement is for it to travel 10 yards.

The next step would be to look at injuries and the severity of injuries on kickoffs and punts. I'm sure the NFL has researched this and found that the average number (and especially the severity) of injuries is lower on a punt than a kickoff, otherwise this never would have even been mentioned.

One other note is that I would guess teams would begin returning punts more frequently than they currently do, eschewing fair catches. Teams started returning balls from deeper and deeper in the end zone when the kickoff was moved up.

But, when should teams actually go for it on the fourth-and-15 attempt?

First, let's look at expected points. This will tell us how often, in general, teams should attempt the fourth-down conversion. We will use the values from the last post and assume a fake punt and conversion attempt both convert at 20 percent.

EP (Normal Punt) = -1.02
EP (Conversion Success) = 2.23
EP (Conversion Failure) = -3.28

Next, we set up the equation to solve for the break-even conversion rate:

2.23 * x - 3.28 * (1 - x) = -1.02
x = 0.41

So, teams should go for it if they believe they can convert over 41 percent of the time. Since the estimated conversion rate is about half that, teams should very rarely go for it. That does not mean they should never go for it, as there are obvious elements of game theory involved -- success probability would increase as your opponent's belief in you attempting the fourth-down conversion decreases. And, most notably, at the end of the game, we must take win probability into account.

Let's first look at a surprise attempt -- fake punt -- taking place in a tie game nearing the end of the third quarter. Most teams would not be expecting a fake here.

WP (Normal Punt) = 0.45
WP (Fake Success) = 0.59
WP (Fake Failure) = 0.38

Solving the same equation, we get x = 0.33. Closer, but still higher than our estimated conversion rate. This goes against previous analysis of surprise onside kicks

Regular onside kicks typically happen when there is less than a 15 percent chance of winning the game. Take the following scenario: Your team just scored, and you are down three with three minutes left.

WP (Normal Punt) = 0.12
WP (Conversion Success) = 0.38
WP (Conversion Failure) = 0.06

Here, x = 0.1875 < 0.20, so the team should attempt a conversion rather than just punting. Obviously, timeouts are a factor in this scenario, but generally, the analysis applies.

It will only make sense to attempt the conversion if your team has less than a 15-to-20 percent chance of winning the game. Above, you can see a (very) rough estimate of the break-even points based on the estimated win probability if the team were to punt the ball normally rather than attempt to convert on fourth-and-15. The thick red line represents the estimated conversion rate on fourth-and-15; a team would only be justified by the math to attempt a conversion when the break-even point was at or below the red line.

Keith Goldner is the creator of Drive-By Football, and Chief Analyst at numberFire.com -- The leading fantasy sports analytics platform.  Follow him on Twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook. Part of this analysis originally appeared on his own site.

Posted by: Guest on 07 Dec 2012

109 comments, Last at 09 Jan 2013, 5:02pm by DisplacedPackerFan


by Ryan D. :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 2:45pm

I think it was a requirement that Andy Reid be fired before something like this could be implemented. Can you imagine how badly he would bungle these late-game strategy calls?

by None (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 2:48pm

ROBO-PUNTER would become a lot more valuable with this rule-change. More seriously, the punter position itself would become more valuable in general while also reducing the value of the place-kicker.

Punters who were former quarterbacks?

by Kal :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 2:49pm

Really nice work.

This makes me think that the 30 yard line is much too far back for this to work, and 4th and 15 may be too far. I know that the overall conversion rate for 4th and 15 is almost exactly the same as the overall conversion rate for onside kicks, but that doesn't take into account surprise vs. nonsurprise onside kicking. And having the ball at the 30 to start every game vs. the option of a touchback a good amount of the time somewhat negates the safety value; while kickoffs when they're run back are dangerous, kickoffs that are not run back are very, very safe. I'd imagine more runbacks would be as dangerous.

What I'd like to see is the option to move the ball up if you can only be in a punt formation. In other words, if you 'go for it' you get the ball at the 30 with a 4th and 15 and can do whatever (including quick kick it). If you choose not to go for it, you get the ball at the 40 but must be in a legal punting formation only. You could still go for surprise fake punts, but you'd not have the same kind of options for formation and motion that you do for going for it normally.

by Dean :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 12:14pm

How do you propose mandating "punt formation?"

We all know what it looks like, but ultimately, it's still 7 guys on the line and 4 guys in the backfield.

by tuluse :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 11:26pm

The NFL already has rules about this. For instance, there is no DPI in a punt formation.

by Kent6491 :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 5:42am

That is not true the rule is "When a team presents a punt formation, defensive pass interference is not to be called for actions on the widest player eligible to go beyond line. Defensive holding may be called."

presents is the key word -

by tuluse :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 1:56pm

I must be missing something, how does that change anything?

by Kent6491 :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 6:28am

Typical punt formations have 8/9 on line with 1/2 blockers in the backfield and the punter
Don't think any specific rule as to what constitutes an "apparent punting formation"

by In_Belichick_We... :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 2:56pm

When I first heard that the NFL is considering the elimination of the kick off, I was very, very against it. This alternate plan isn't bad though.
Regarding the average starting field position difference: Maybe they'll move it up a little after seeing these numbers.
Regarding the lack of a surprise on-sides kick: who cares.

by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:01pm

My only quibble is the starting field position. I would make it a 4th and 15 at the 40.

Also, I would have thought that recovering a non-surprise onside kick is less likely than converting a 4th and 15

by snoopy369 :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:06pm

I thought about this as well (starting on the 40). There is one major consideration, though (other than increasing scoring, which of course is in the NFL's best interests, or at least they seem to think so).

On the 40, a normal punter can fairly reliably kick the ball 40 yards in the air, on a high trajectory, and get the ball to the 20, where there will likely be a fair catch (assuming their gunners do their jobs). On the 30, most punters can't reach the 20 with a high kick, meaning they're more likely to try to boom it - hoping the returner will miss it and it will go out of the endzone. That means, however, that it's more likely for the returner to get a returnable kick, leading to more returns and thus more interesting plays.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:33pm

But eliminating "interesting" plays seems to be the main objective for the NFL, thus they'd probably be all over that. This is very much a slippery slope situation: Are punts really that much safer than kickoffs? If there's any debate on that at all, then it won't be long that punts are also deemed too dangerous. That's why I find it so crazy that Goodell and the NFL are the ones pushing for this. I get they're shaking in their shoes over the concussion lawsuit, but publicly announcing you think your sport is currently too dangerous for professionals to play is a pretty crazy way of defending yourself.

Stealing a great point I saw from somebody else on a different board: Kickoffs aren't the most dangerous play in football--passes are because on those plays you've got a QB getting crushed while receivers get blown up. Passes would have to make up the vast majority of plays where concussions occur. If the NFL is going to allow that kickoffs are simply too dangerous the next logical conclusion will be that the sport overall is too dangerous. Goodell is playing the old game of "To save the patient, we must kill the patient."

by QCIC (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:47pm

The eventual elimination of punting as well is a feature of this slippery slop[e, not a bug.

Really what exactly is the virtue of punting or kicking in the NFL. If you were designing it from scratch or re-designing it you would never include them. They are vestigial.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:15pm

I couldn't disagree with this more.

by tuluse :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:11pm

Passing was actually introduced because it's safer than running.

by mlc (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 2:33pm

False. Very, very false.

by tuluse :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 1:30am

In the 1910s and 20s people were dying because of football. Congress basically told them to clean up the game or they were going out law it. One of the changes they made was liberalizing passing rules.

by DGL :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 1:04pm

A bit earlier, actually.

"By 1905, college football was all the rage, attracting tens of thousands of fans to games... But it was also an increasingly violent and deadly passion. There were 18 fatalities nationwide that year, including three college players... and President Theodore Roosevelt, whose son was on the freshmen team at Harvard University, made it clear he wanted reforms amid calls by some to abolish the college game...

"So in December representatives of 62 schools met in New York to change the rules and make the game safer. They made a number of changes, including banning the 'flying wedge'...

"Their biggest change was to make the forward pass legal."

From Smithsonian Magazine

by tuluse :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 11:26pm

Thanks. I should have known it was earlier because the NFL was formed in the 20s and the forward pass was already legal by then.

by leviramsey (not verified) :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 11:19am

It would have been interesting had Pop Warner's proposal for the onside kick from scrimmage being adopted.

by Brent :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 12:19pm

Football, as is, is just too dangerous. Eliminating kickoffs won't fix that. What will? I'm not sure. Maybe it's not fixable. Theoretically it should be fixable since the interesting plays are not the same plays as the ones where people get hurt, but I don't have the solution.

by snoopy369 :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:03pm

Wasn't there a FO staff post on this idea last year sometime?

I'd be all for this rule change. I love kickoffs, but punts are exciting too, and if they are significantly safer (which makes logical sense to me, though I don't have evidence) then let's do it. A lot more strategy would be involved - do you try to block it or double up the gunners? Does the punting team kick it out of bounds, up high for a likely fair catch, or boom it deep?

It also means more excitement at the end of a half or game on a late score. If team A scores a game-winning TD with :06 remaining (say), right now they just have to squib it (so no fair catch possible) and maybe defend a single Hail Mary. With the punt on, team B can try to block it, and if they succeed might be within range for a FG, or at least one shot downfield that's reasonably convertable. Means teams will try to bleed a little extra clock off in order to avoid a blocked punt.

Of course, the winning team could always take an intentional safety to bleed the clock. Or would safety kicks also be modified to a normal punt instead of a free kick?

by Steve in WI :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:22pm

I don't know how I feel about what this would do to the game, but I certainly appreciate the in-depth analysis.

That said, I'm convinced that if this happens, it will be nothing more than a cynical attempt by the NFL to defend themselves against lawsuits by saying "see, we're making the game safer." I don't believe that kickoffs are significantly more dangerous than punts based on the fact that either way, by the time the kicking team gets to the returner they're running at full speed. Moreover, the injury issue in the NFL really isn't about injuries, it's about head injuries specifically. I can't remember the last time I saw a guy get concussed on a kickoff return; moreover, evidence is starting to suggest that the repeated smaller blows are just as dangerous in the long run. How is getting rid of the kickoff going to protect the players who are taking perhaps hundreds of small hits to the head each season? It's not.

by JonFrum :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:31pm

You don't believe? The numbers exist - no one is guessing here. Have you looked at the data?

by Steve in WI :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:21pm

Enlighten me (seriously). I have never seen a comparison of head injuries suffered on punts vs. kickoffs, nor have I seen data on how many concussions occur as a result of kickoffs. Anecdotally, it sure seems like a small percentage. Throw in the increasingly-clear fact that it's not just concussions that cause problems, and I'm not convinced that this change would do anything except give the league something to point to and say "see, we did something!"

by Jerry :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:53pm

I can't give you a citation, but the usual explanation I see is that most of the blocker-defender contact on a punt is near the line of scrimmage rather than after the cover guy has gotten up a 40-yard head of steam. This is less about contact with returners than contact with blockers.

by RickD :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:58pm

I hate this talking point about "building up a head of steam." People run on legs, not wheels. Most people are at very close to full speed within 10 yards of starting to run. The difference between speed achieved after 40 yards of sprinting and speed achieved after 10 yards is minimal.

by Mr Shush :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 8:53pm

How about speed achieved after just a yard or two? And then consider that on a kick-off, players are frequently colliding while running head on into each other, which is rarely the case on a punt. I would expect the difference to be huge.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 9:04pm

They don't have ten yards in a straight line on the punt. They try to move laterally in order to avoid the block. That slows them way down. Consider a running back who is the fastest player on the field. He's still going to be caught from behind when a defender in front of him breaks down.

by Brent :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 12:32pm

Either way, Steve is right. It's at best a half-assed attempt at fixing a small part of a huge problem, and at worst a PR move to distract from the issue at hand.

by Special J :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 2:44pm

It really can't be anything else but a fundamentally disingenuous bit of PR slight of hand. The emerging conclusion from all the recent medical research is that chronic traumatic encephalopathy is less often due to a handful of major concussions than it is by higher-frequency mild brain trauma -- the kind experienced by linemen on every snap. The NFL can eliminate kickoffs and enact all of the rules protecting 'defenseless receivers' from getting concussed highly visible fashion all it wants, it's not going to address the real issue.
Tinkering with the rules of the game just isn't going to do the trick. If the NFL wants to save football as we know it, the league needs to get serious about forwarding the research into the prevention and treatment of brain trauma. The combined wealth of the league's owners would rank behind only Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and make them the 3rd richest American. They have the resources and incentive to advance the medecine of brain injury by leaps and bounds. They only need to accept their responsibility.

by Brent :: Tue, 12/11/2012 - 4:13pm

Mostly, I agree. I'm generously allowing that they might be sincere-yet-mistaken rather than intentionally ignoring safety issues.

by JasonDrake (not verified) :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 4:13pm

In a typical punt formation, there is one man deep to return the punt and 10 men at the line of scrimmage (maybe 6 at the line trying for a block and 2 on each side to block the gunners). These 10 defenders who become blockers for the return will be running in the same direction as the opposing players they are trying to block.

In kickoff return formation, there are typically about 5 guys near the line, 2 deep to return, and 4 more distributed somewhere in the middle. The blockers who are further away are more likely to be running towards the opposing players they are trying to block.

Also, in a punt formation you'll probably have bigger (hence slower) players at the offensive line positions as compared to the players you'd use to cover a kickoff (essentially 10 gunners).

by In_Belichick_We... :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:23pm

An interesting side effect will be what happens after a late FG near half time. Teams may consider leaving 3 or 4 seconds on the clock to allow for a hail mary type attempt instead of punting after converting a late FG.

by JPS (not verified) :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 7:04pm

Best post.

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:25pm

I've seen that 20% success rate for expected onside cited a lot, but I don't buy it. One article I read that quoted the 20% number as the success rate of expected onside kicks from 2001-2010. That would include years before they changed it so you don't re-kick if you're offisde, and you can't stack all your personnel to one side. Both those changes made expected onside kicks harder. I would be shocked if the current success rate of expected onside kicks is even 15%.

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:58pm

According to the PFR database, In 2011 there were 56 total onside kicks, 9 of which were successful, a success rate of 16%. The PFR database doesn’t list whether the kicks were surprise or not, but it does list the quarter in which they took place. I think it’s reasonable to assume that most if not all onside kicks outside of the fourth quarter were surprise. Throwing out all the onside kicks not occurring in the fourth quarter (not 100% accurate but the best I can do) leaves 46 onside kicks, 4 of which were successful, a success rate of 9%. Perhaps onside kicking teams were simply unlucky in 2011, but I doubt that 9% figure is much of an outlier. Even assuming that the onside kicking teams were a bit unlucky in 2011, it looks to me like switching to the 4th and 15 format would be a significant boost to teams' chances of getting back possession.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:27pm

My biggest worry in all this would be a ticky tacky pass interference call when a team did decide to go for it or a blown OPI. I know that penalties happen on kick off and kick off returns all the time, but they don't seem to be as potentially impactful as they might be in this case. I can see Jordy Nelson play acting (I know he's gotten calls he shouldn't) at the 25 and now the Packers with their surprise "onside kick" are sitting in field goal range that even Crosby shouldn't miss.

Bad officiating is bothersome at all times, but again I just worry more about this, perhaps more than I should. I'm just glad the NFL managed to get extra crews, and their training program for officials, I really do hope this means that in 5 years or so we'll see the bad officials (or an entire crew) get "benched" and officiating quality goes up, and then my worries won't matter.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:30pm

So 4th-and-13 from the 35 seems right?

I like it - it'll reward teams for being good at football, and not being good at winning the weighted coinflip that is an onside kick.

It'll also give us one more situation to obsess over coaching decisions which I also like.

by AllChiefs (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:36pm

I think there is another critical part of this and that is that penalties have a much bigger impact on 4th and 15th than on a kickoff. On a kickoff, a penalty does not change the mandatory yards that a ball must travel before it can be recovered, but defensive penalties would change the distance for a successful conversion in the new rule.

Also, on a kickoff it is impossible for the receiving team to commit a penalty that automatically results in losing the ball. On a 4th and 15 play (a punt or conversion attempt), any personal foul penalty (face mask, unnecessary roughness, roughing, etc.) would result in losing the ball. Not to mention that if a team attempted to go for it, any pass interference or defensive holding, would automatically result in a successful conversion for the "kicking" team. These scenarios are impossible in a normal kickoff.

Really the difference is that a kickoff is a mandatory transfer of possession. You can try to recover it, but the play is designed so that you have to kick the ball to the other team. A 4th and 15 play gives the kicking team a possession, but more importantly the ability to decide what they do with it.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:52pm

Those automatic penalties is built into the 4th-and-15 conversion rates of this analysis, no?

by BellicheckvBills (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:58pm

so in theory.. one team could possess the ball the entire game.

by dbostedo :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:18pm

That's already true. One team could continually recover onside kicks the whole game.

If they set the 4th down so that the conversion rate lands at about the same odds as recovering an onside kick, teams would be no more likely to hold onto possession than they are now.

I always think of onside kick recovery as a real shot in the dark - more like a hail mary or, maybe like a 4th and 30. But it's really not quite that bad.

by BaconAndWaffles :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:24pm

In theory, that could happen under the current rules.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:22pm

Yeah, it could.

But in the current structure of the game, special teams are a completely different phase of the game.

Moving to the 4th-and-15, you could basically control the ball the whole game without even having Special Teams. It would be all on your offense.

And with the chance that giving the other team the ball means you never get it back, the downside of giving them the ball on the 40 if you fail a conversion isn't really all that relevant.

I don't think a great offense should be able to keep the other team from ever getting the ball. A great offense and great Special Teams? I don't have a whole lot of problem with that. If you're dominant in 2 phases of the game, you're going to win pretty consistently.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:01pm

Further this could really change the high-level strategy of the sport. Imagine building a team with nothing but minimum wage defense and stars all over the offense. How high could you get your 4th and 15 rate? Would the optimum strategy be to build a team this way and always go for it?

by tuluse :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:12pm

Or to build a team designed to stop 4th and 15s, and take advantage of the other team's shitty special teams.

by JohnD (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:16pm

Looking at Luck's insane numbers on 3rd and long this year I could see the Colts trying to control the game that way. Would be truly awesome to witness.

by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:19pm

Good stuff. I think it is also worth noting all the automatic-first-down defensive penalties that would come into play as well. Illegal contact, DPI, RTP, any personal foul, defensive holding...

So there are more ways to convert than simply getting the yardage.

by deep64blue :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:14pm

I bet they would remove the automatic first down rule for these punts.

by QCIC (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:36pm

I would love an end to all kicking. Just hand-egg. No remnants of other sports which:

Have no relation to the rest of the game
Slow the game down
Require extra equipment for the fields (which makes the game less accessible)
Require extra personnel (which makes them game harder to get together and more expensive)
Extra sections in a much longer rulebook
Extra officiating knowledge/attention
Detracts from the game's elegance.

Then again I am someone who loses parsimony.

One teams starts with the ball on the 20 (or 25 or whatever the break even point is), they get 4 downs to go 10 yards, they drive until they get stopped or score a TD, repeat. No extra points, punting or FGs, no kickoffs. More football less random skills competition.

You would have to work out some sort of golden parachute for current kickers and punters for the union to approve this, other than that I see no downside.

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:07pm

Seems like we're moving in this direction, but I'm leery about eliminating field goals. I like the strategic implications of there being a sub-optimal outcome for a drive that still results in points for the offense.

by QCIC (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:16pm

Every yard you advance is "points for the offense" in some sense. They just aren't realized points yet.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:24pm

The more offensively oriented the league gets, the less this is true.

I think its already gotten to the point that teams would rather have the ball and be down a couple points at the end of the game, than be up a couple and not have the ball. Teams can pretty much move the ball at will once they get into 4-down territory.

by DRohan :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 3:01am

This is partly true because of how reliable kickers are these days.

by usernaim250 :: Wed, 12/12/2012 - 2:05pm

I was just about to post this. The best thing about this is that Thaler already proved teams would almost always be better off going for it. It would be like gun control. Punts don't kill drives, coaches do.

Also, having four shots to get ten would encourage creativity and risk taking in play calling. It's easier to "waste" a down when you have three more. So there would be just as many highlights for Sports Center because there would be more long bombs and more cool trick plays.

by nottom :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:41pm

The one thing I didn't see anyone mention is the effect of the change in EP on 4th down conversion attempts. While I'm sure it would have little impact on most coaches, effectively devaluing FGs and TDs by over half a point should hopefully inspire a few open-minded coaches to be more aggressive on 4th downs within FG range. This would probably be a net gain for the NFL audience and make up for the loss of kickoffs.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 4:48pm

Why is it that every time I quote something, I get marked as spam?

by JonFrum :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 7:19pm

Stop quoting the Geico lizard.

by Trevor (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:38pm

Football is a dangerous sport. I think ALL football players know this going into the profession.

If you don't want to risk getting concussed or injured then do not play football or play in the NFL.

Do not ruin the best sport ever, Goodell!!

by Trevor (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:38pm

Football is a dangerous sport. I think ALL football players know this going into the profession.

If you don't want to risk getting concussed or injured then do not play football or play in the NFL.

Do not ruin the best sport ever, Goodell!!

by Zac :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 3:39am

I've invented a game I'm sure you're going to love. It's a copy of the game from "The Running Man". Except instead of convicts, it will be normal people, and there will be a $10 million prize to the winner (the survivor). And burial fees for everyone else. Shouldn't be a problem, right? Everyone who signs up will know what they're getting into.

by Jeremy Billones :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 10:35am

Ever heard of the Death Race Challenge? All they need is a TV contract.

Stick youmaydie into your search enggine.

by Brent :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 12:40pm

Let's have high school kids do it, while assuring their parents that it's perfectly safe.

by JMM* (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:41pm

I would just change the out of bounce rule from the 40 to where it goes out.

Can kickers put it out inside the 20 without it getting returned? Or kick for the touchback or onside.

More options, more strategy. Little incentive to run headlong into others.

by Adam H (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 6:55pm

Would it be possible to replace all place-kicking with punt-style kicks? Field goals and extra points are too easy, in my humble opinion.

by RickD :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:54pm

Hey - let's get rid of all kicking altogether!

And then, we can get rid of running plays. After all, everybody loves passing.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:03pm

I think I have a simpler solution. Give the kicking team the option to forego the kickoff in favor of an automatic touchback. Kickers are already trying for touchbacks, so it'd be silly in general for a team ever to kickoff. That reduces kickoffs to a minimum and also doesn't replace it with punts, which means fewer dangerous plays. A team that needs to do an onsides kick still may. You lose the surprise onsides, but oh well.

by Michael (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:11pm

Someone mentioned 4th and 13 from the 35. I think it'd be interesting to play around with the numbers. In general, right now if a team fails on an onside kick, the other team gets the ball at around the 40. With this new rule, an incomplete pass means the ball turns over at the 30. The expected point differential on that could also affect decisions to go for it or kick.

by RickD :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 7:44pm

I hate this idea.

Regarding safety...

"(although I assume they are, otherwise this never would have been suggested)."

Schiano had a player paralyzed on a kickoff. That's why this idea was suggested. But that one play alone doesn't mean that kickoffs are riskier than other plays.

Kickoffs are part of football. I get sick of the game constantly tweaking its rules every two years. And this would be the biggest rule change in my lifetime.

If the NFL wanted to make the game safer, they could start by changing the helmet. Today's player is equipped with a mini battering ram with which he can damage his opponent.

by BlueStarDude :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 8:08pm

I don't have a link but there was a report a few years ago that showed that KOs have the highest rate of injury. They moved the spot since then but now more kicks are being returned from within the endzone so probably the NFL hasn't seen as much of a dropoff as they'd like.

by RickD :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 3:08am

Brian Burke looked into this last year:


Kickoffs are not significantly more dangerous than other kinds of plays. And there is more year-to-year variation in the injury rate than there is between-type variation among the different types of plays.

And really, what's the argument here? It's important to replace a kickoff with a 2.0% chance of an injury with a punt with a 1.5% chance of injury?

If the NFL wants to address injuries in a serious manner, there are a lot of other things that they could do that would do a lot more.

by nat :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 8:05am

It's not about injury rates. It's about injury severity. And it's about unreported brain trauma. Both of these are (presumably) higher in kickoff returns because of the high reletive speeds in the collisions. So Burke's study, although interesting, is not really to the point.

by rj1a (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2013 - 6:39am

then we need to change the laws on the line of scrimmage due to all those mild hits linemen take after the ball is snapped

by Brent :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 12:45pm

The helmet idea is silly. It can be a weapon, yes. So can someone's head. Or foot. Or the ground. It's a piece of protective gear. Removing the protective gear will not make the game safer.

by rj1a (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2013 - 6:44am

I used to agree. But I've played rugby for four years now and while you do see the odd concussion or freak injury, the game does strike me as safer than football.

There is something to be said for the helmet providing a sense of invincibility. This wouldn't be an issue if players wrapped and tackled, but a lot of guys don't know how to wrap and tackle at all and just look to do monster hit. I would make the hard part of the helmet softer. Rugby forwards (NFL versions would be linemen, linebackers) can wear a head covering that is pretty much the padding inside a football helmet without the hard part.

by tuluse :: Wed, 01/09/2013 - 3:06pm

Before helmets people were dying from skull fractures.

There is no way having a helmet is more dangerous. It might still be too dangerous, but it is clearly less so.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Wed, 01/09/2013 - 5:02pm

Yeah, people forget the sport was causing enough injury and death in the early 1900's that Congress was considering outlawing it.

The other thing that fails in comparisons to other sports is the start - stop nature of football vs the more continuous play of other contact sports. This means you get breaks to rest in football way more frequently. Rested players can exert more force.

There is more positional specialization possible in football as the chances or needing to do anything other than your specialty are smaller than in other contact sports. While all sports have specialization, it's not only possible, but preferred that many players in football never make contact with the ball during a game. The chance of a hockey player never handling the puck are about nil, the chances of a basketball player increasing his teams chance of winning by never touching the ball are about nil. I don't know rugby as well, I know it has specialization but the chance that you will touch the ball are higher than they are in football. What that means is that over specialization can start to negatively impact the teams chance to win. If an NFL left guard spends zero time with ball handling drills it will not impact the teams chances to win. If a rugby prop spends zero time with ball handling drills it very well could cost his team even if the plan is to minimize him handling the ball, it could very well happen.

So football keeps self selecting for players that are not only bigger/stronger/faster but "burstier". You don't need to be able keep moving for 20 - 60 minutes with additional high energy bursts like some of the other contact sports. You need to be able to do high energy bursts every 20 seconds or so, with variable periods of rest or minimal activity over the span of an hour or so, then you get a good 15 minute break and have to do that for another hour or so. That's not necessarily a different type of athlete, but it's a different type of training specialization which has more specialization on top of that.

While there are opportunities in rugby for large fast men to hit each other at full force they are not as frequent as they are in football, because the game isn't designed from the ground up to be about burst and collisions.

Another general statement on the "armor" that NFL players wear. The numbers I've seen is that the average player today has less protection than the average player did 20 years ago. Shoulder pads and thigh pads have been shrinking, and it's not all because of better more protective materials, what I've read is that a player today simply tends to wear less overall protection (many positions completely eschewing certain protection options) in order to have maximum mobility. To be fair, helmets may be the one area where the protection value has increased.

I just feel the need to point out other things that people tend to overlook about the nature of football. I agree completely that it's safer with helmets, and that even with helmets it may be too dangerous.

by usernaim250 :: Wed, 12/12/2012 - 2:09pm

Amen to changing the helmet.

But I think that when you get proof that the game you love is creating serious permanent damage to the players, you have to be willing to give a little of your nostalgic bond to the way things are.

by BlueStarDude :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 8:04pm

They would need a new term for the situation. 4th and 15 just bugs me. It's not 4th down.

That said, I like this situation but with the ball spotted on the 40 or maybe the 35.

To the guy who brought up the penalty issue. I have a lot if sympathy for that but it may not be fair to make defensive holding not a first down. I suppose they could make that and illegal contact like DPI and have them be spot fouls and not make them automatic first downs, but then having a different set of rules for this one play would be annoying, so we'd just have to live with the occasional bad call... could just as well be a bad offensive holding call. Bad calls are bad calls; more of them should be open to replay.

Now it would be nice if they could use the Gronk injury to do away with XPs.

by tuluse :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 8:14pm

DPI is an automatic first down.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 9:04pm

I don't like that either. I don't think the offense should ever* get an automatic first down. If the yardage yielded by the penalty results in a first down, then sure, it's first down. Otherwise just give them the yards and replay the down.

*for some value of ever.

by tuluse :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 9:44pm

I'm intrigued by your ideas, and would like to subscribe to your newsletter

I would make an exception for unnessicary roughness though.

by Andrew Potter :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 10:20pm

I don't think the offense should ever* get an automatic first down. If the yardage yielded by the penalty results in a first down, then sure, it's first down. Otherwise just give them the yards and replay the down.

I agree. I've held this opinion for years.

I would make an exception for unnessicary roughness though.

Five years ago I'd have agreed with you. The way unnecessary roughness is called now though, I wouldn't. Fifteen yards ought to be enough to gain a first down in most instances anyway.

by MJK :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 5:04pm

YES YES YES. I really agree with this.

To my mind, giving an "automatic first down" to the offense on a penalty is equivalent (or even stronger) than awarding "loss of down" to the defense on an offensive penalty. So on 3rd and 23, the RB gets interfered with 3 yards past the LOS, and we give him an automatic first down, tacitly saying "well if you hadn't interfered with him, who knows what might have happened, so let's assume he would have caught the ball, eluded your tackle, and then run the ball another 20 yards."

Yet when the left tackle holds the DE, we don't assume the DE would have sacked the QB for a loss and call it a loss of down...

by BlueStarDude :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 9:40am

I know that. My sentence structure was perhaps not clear enough there.

by Sancho (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 8:25pm

Put the ball at the 50 yard line. Make touchbacks to start at the receiving 40. If the kick goes out-of-bounds, ball is placed at line of the kick. Teams will be forced to make tactical kicks. There will be less time and space for returns. There will an incentive for onside kicks.

Please, save the kick-offs!

by Rich A (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 11:38pm

Very interesting idea

by BlueStarDude :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 9:45am

This is a good idea too, although I think the just having the touchback in these cases come back to the 25 would be enough incentive for the kicking team to not just boot it out of the end zone. Maybe combine this with the idea floated above/below here of having the space between receiving and kicking teams tightened up, though I wonder how that would affect onside kicks.

by Sancho (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 1:35pm

The idea is still a working-in-progress, obviously. It is nothing more than a sketch. Unfortunately, I do not have ANY mathematical skill to calculate the impact of the changes.

I put the touchback at the 40-yard-line because it was simple. Ten yards is the distance the ball needs to travel to be in play, and it is, by the current rules, the place that the ball goes if the kickoff is out-of-bounds.

I really do not imagine how the teams would behave, but since touchbacks becomes a punishment, I assume there will be a lot of temptation to kick the ball higher and less deeper in order to get it back. After all, every single ball in play*, even if you do not recover, will mean a better field position for the defense than the 40-yard of the touchback. Why not try it then?

P.S.: I think it would be possible to add that if the ball touches the field-of-play or a an active player before going out-of-bounds, the next play starts a the line where the ball exited. It would add lower kicks to the corner as a viable option, as well.

*assuming the kickoff at the 50-yard line.

by Anon (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 9:23pm

If there are fewer high speed collisions on punts vs. kick-offs, then I think the reason is because the players start near each other at the line of scrimmage. Could we make kick-offs safer by forcing, say, 7 members of the kick return team to line up 5 yards away from the 35 yard line?

by armchair journe... :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 10:17pm

Some version of this seems a far simpler solution.. Modify the positioning and blocking rules for kickoffs, rather than inventing a new game situation.


by Jimmy :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 3:37pm

I'd go with nine players from the return team needing to be stood between the 45 yard lines (assuming the 35 yard line for the kick) at the kick. Maybe allow them another five yards, I am not sure.

by armchair journe... :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 10:14pm

I was half expecting (ok, mostly expecting) an analysis of the projected benefit from playing through every kneel-down over the course of the season..

This is much better.


by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 1:35am

No thankyou, because I quite like the NFL.

But if you absolutely had to, then I'd rather see a 4th and 20 from the 40.

by In_Belichick_We... :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 8:07am

How far can an NFL QB throw the ball?
I ask because I like the idea of moving from the 30 to keep starting field position close to normal but I don't think it should be close enough to allow for hail mary plays. If a team can line up and run a hail mary that is caught in the end zone, then the starting point should be backed up.
For a hail mary situation, the team should at least be required to catch the ball and then run it into the end zone. I'm not interested in seeing more of these cluster f**k jump fests in the end zone.

by Luigi (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 12:46pm

This is interesting but there's something even worst than a hail mary: Pass Intereference. I'm sick of "PI by design" plays where the Qb just throws deep and the WR looks for contact and a flag, catching the ball is just a secondary goal.

by andrew :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 11:37am

If there is a penalty on the extra point following a touchdown, the kind that normally gets enforced on the kickoff... would it affect the distance for a first?

e.g., if the defense is offside on the PAT, is it 4th and 10 from the 35, or still 4th and 15 from the 35. I assume the latter, as that would make a personal foul on an extra point rather severe.

by Luigi (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 12:02pm

What about the reverse fake?

You send the offense for a 4th and 15 attempt with the option to punt.

In this scheme the QB can either try to convert 4th and 15 or just punt. The opponent needs to send the defense there and then how are the stats for a punt when the opponent does not have its specialists on the field ?

What is better a punter that can pass or a QB that can punt ?

by Sancho (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 1:37pm

You would need to put your returner in as a REALLY DEEP safety...

by TimK :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 3:21pm

Yes, this is an interesting wrinkle. There used to be plenty of QBs who could and would sometimes punt (Cunningham and Elway both did on occasion).

The fake 'onside' could be a good way to pin your opponent back, but with the different possession rules on punts to KOs the receiving/defending team could just leave no-one back as the back cannot be recovered by the kicking team if the defense leave it alone (a lucky roll of the ball could make for extraordinarily bad field position though).

by Luigi (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 3:47pm

If the defense leaves noboy deep, then what happens if the QB throws the fake-pseudo-hail mary to no one? The ball is alive and either a recovery by the offense or a recvoery + tackle for the offense will be good for the offense? In the worst case scenario this works as effectively as a punt...

This makes me think you always have to have someone deep and then it's 4th and 15 with 11 offensive players against 10 defenders, the stats will have to be redone.

by JohnD (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 7:46pm

Unless I'm confused, we're talking about quick kicks. Throwing a ball results in an incompletion and the defense would take over at the line of scrimmage.

by DraftMan (not verified) :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 3:48pm

So, whose kicker wants to be the first to practice getting those 87-yard field goals down consistently, allowing his team to just play solitaire target pratice with the uprights all game long?

by nat :: Sat, 12/08/2012 - 11:14pm

Myself, I'd like to see play start with some kind of kick and return, with an option of some high risk play to maintain possession of the ball. To reduce the risk of the most serious injuries, I'd like to see the kick returns involve less chance of high speed head on collisions, but not simply by threatening a penalty. I want the safe play to be the smart play, too.

Using punts could work. So might restricting the starting positions of the receiving team. There might be other solutions, too.

A good idea would be to try out several of the proposals in pre-season games. Or try one out in the Pro Bowl. Few of the ideas are so bad that they would spoil a pre-season game. They might actually add some interest, too.

by Michael LaRocca (not verified) :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 10:25am

Ban the victory formation...

by justanothersteve :: Sun, 12/09/2012 - 9:26pm

It's only dangerous in games when Schiano is coaching and losing.

by Tballgame (not verified) :: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 3:03pm

"The next step would be to look at injuries and the severity of injuries on kickoffs and punts. I'm sure the NFL has researched this and found that the average number (and especially the severity) of injuries is lower on a punt than a kickoff, otherwise this never would have even been mentioned."

Seriously? The NFL is jumping at their shadow with regards to concussions right now and this type of assumption is dangerous. How about this possibility: The NFL just had an active player commit a murder/suicide that involved a stadium, a head coach, and a GM, making it a mainstream headline. Many media outlets went on the concussion witch hunt the same way baseball scribes make the steroids leap when a player significantly outperforms his offensive expectations. Now the Commissioner is asked about the state of the league and what the NFL is doing to prevent concussions. He has nothing. To distract from having nothing, he throws out the Schiano Rule. If the NFL had research on kickoff concussions, they would publish. Do you assume Schiano did the research before volunteering this idea? More likely, the NFL would wait for an outfit like FO to do the research. Until you see data, you should assume the data hasn't been collected.

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