Guest column by Jack Duffin
During the Week 8 matchup between Green Bay and the Los Angeles Rams, Packers returner Ty Montgomery ran a kickoff out of the end zone. He proceeded to fumble the ball away, costing Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in the league, what could have been a game-winning drive. While the team had instructed Montgomery to take a touchback, he decided he knew best and took a risk that backfired, and led to Green Bay trading him. Inspired by Montgomery, I wanted to look much deeper into whether teams should ever take the risk of running the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs, and whether the risk is worth the reward.
In both 2016 and 2018 the rules in the NFL regarding kickoffs changed, and questions were raised over how teams would react. With touchbacks moved to the 25-yard line (As of 2016), why would teams ever leave the end zone when they could get a free 25 yards without having to make a play? I looked up every kickoff during the 2018 regular season that was returned out of the end zone to see how successful teams were. I have used the data from NFL.com's play-by-play game center. I included all the plays that landed 1 yard or more into the end zone and were returned. I am also measuring each play by the yard line to which the ball was returned, not the distance of the return. If a ball is caught 3 yards deep in the end zone and recorded as 22-yard return, this means the ball is spotted at the 19-yard line, and that's what I'm looking at. I'm not interested in how far the ball has travelled, only where it ended.
I measured 251 kickoffs that were returned out of the end zone during the 2018 season; the results are in the table below. The aim of every return at a minimum is to get to at least the 26-yard line, as you can get to the 25-yard line just by taking a knee. Unfortunately, NFL teams only managed to make the 26-yard line on 29.3 percent of their attempts in 2018. This means that in the vast majority of cases, teams would have been better suited taking the touchback for the free 25 yards.
There were actually 256 kickoffs that were returned out of the end zone in 2018. Of these I have excluded four that were either the final or penultimate play in the half; teams might have treated those differently, as a big return might have given them a chance to score and field position wasn't as important. I also excluded one attempt during the Week 5 game between the Rams and Seahawks as the kick resulted in a flag and was then retaken. For penalties on the receiving team, I measured the return to the point at which the infringement occurred. For penalties on the kicking team, I measured the point where the return finished, not where the foul took place. I wanted to do everything I could to minimize the impact of penalties, as they can happen on plays where a touchback occurs too.
I separated fumbles into two categories. Fumbles during or directly after the catch where the receiver has regained the ball and made a return have been treated as part of the return yardage. When a fumble has occurred further up the field and the ball has been collected by a teammate or the opposition, the point where the player lost control of the ball has been used as the yardage for the return.
Only five teams (Texans, Jets, Bengals, Buccaneers, Ravens) managed to make the 26-yard line on even 50 percent of their attempts. Four teams (Raiders, Colts, Redskins, Cardinals) failed to make the 26-yard line even once during the season, though the Cardinals were the only team in that four to have more than three attempts. The Raiders had the fewest returns out of the end zone with two, followed by the Colts, Redskins, and Bills with three each. Maybe these teams were quickest to learn that taking a touchback was a sensible strategy?
The Dolphins had 20 returns out of the end zone, most in the league, followed by the Rams, Giants, Chargers, and Falcons. I'm not sure what special teams coordinators are trying to achieve by continuing to do something that isn't working. Maybe if they evaluate a full season of data they will make the right decision to make on a regular basis. Still, sometimes the decision is solely on the player, as we saw with Montgomery.
The Jets had the best results on returns out of the end zone, reaching the 31.3-yard line on average. Only nine other teams (Seahawks, Bengals, Jaguars, 49ers, Dolphins, Texans, Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers) averaged better than the 25-yard line on returns out of the end zone.
I considered a great play to be a team getting to the 35-yard line -- 10 yards more than what a touchback would have given them. We saw this play achieved eight percent of the time by teams across the entire season, showing the chances of having a great play on a return out of the end zone was very low. Only three teams (Jets, Jaguars, Saints) made the 35-yard line on 25 percent of their attempts.
Houston had interesting results -- they were the most consistent team at getting to the 26, doing so 83 percent of the time, but they didn't reach the 35-yard line even once.
Flipping the Field
I also decided to check how often teams flipped the field by returning the ball to the 50-yard line. I was not expecting this to be happen very often, but this is the sort of thing that would lead me to believe that returns out of the end zone could be worth the risk of losing yardage on some plays, because your chances of scoring on shorter drives would be greatly improved. Only four plays -- two percent of all end zone returns -- managed to get to the halfway point of the field.
Touchdowns vs. Turnovers
The most dramatic possible results of a return on a kick-off are that a team scores a touchdown or turns the ball over. In 2018 we saw one touchdown and three turnovers. The only touchdown scored was by Jakeem Grant of the Miami Dolphins against Tennessee in Week 1. The Packers had two of the turnovers -- the one by Montgomery against the Rams, and one by J'Mon Moore against the Jets in Week 11. The other was suffered by Detroit's Ameer Abdullah, who fumbled the ball away against Seattle in Week 8.
I think it is important for all teams to seriously consider whether they should be returning kickoffs out of the end zone. With both the chance of getting to the 26-yard line as low as it is and the average return failing to reach the 25, it would be better to take a knee and start drives as near to the opponent's goal line as possible.
If I was a special teams coordinator, I would want to reach the 26-yard line at least 75 percent of the time, the 35-yard line 25 percent of the time, and midfield 5 percent of the time before I considered taking the ball out of the end zone. None of the 32 NFL teams hit all three of those targets, although each was met by at least one team.
With so little value coming from returns out of the end zone, it wouldn't surprise me if the NFL moves in the future to consider all kicks into the end zone as touchbacks and continue to reduce the amount of returns that occur in the league in an effort to reduce concussions.
It will be interesting to see what the data says in 2019. We have a solid sample of more than 250 plays, but more data would give a better indication of what is happening. The 2019 data will allow us to see if teams change their style this offseason and attempt fewer returns. With the league making changes to increase the amount of scoring, we are likely to see more and more kickoffs, giving teams the chance to make more returns if they want.
Jack Duffin is the co-host of the Paul Brown Podcast, a Daily International Browns Podcast based out of London, England. You can follow him on Twitter @JackDuffin.