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What Happened To The Kick Return?


The familiar site of a team lining up for a kickoff to start a half or following a score is becoming largely ceremonial.

It was no surprise when following the 2010 football season the NFL announced that kickoffs would be taken from the 35 yard line instead of the 30 yard line that the number of touchbacks would go up and the number of kick returns would go down.  In 2010 Billy Cundiff led all kickers with 40 touchbacks and the following year Thomas Morstead led all kickers with 68 touchbacks.  In 2010 the total number of kick returns was 2,033; a year later it dropped down to 1,375, a total decline of nearly 33%.

The story has changed since then, however. By 2014 the number of kick returns dropped to 1,226, and through the first 12 games for all teams this season there have only been 812 kick returns, which projects to just 1,083 for the entire season (more on that below).  In short, kickoffs are becoming much more commonplace and kick returns are becoming rarer.

Of course, it’s difficult to blame the league for wanting to limit the number of kick returns.  The league found that a disproportionate number of kickoffs were taking place on returns, and with as much of a spotlight as has been on player safety from all over the place (this year’s Will Smith movie included), it’s understandable when player safety drives decisions that can change the fabric of the game.

Anecdotally, it seems that returners are just itching to try to make a play when they are getting fewer and fewer chances to over the course of the season.  In my viewing this year it seems that many returners are taking the ball out of the end zone and not making it back to the twenty yard line, costing their team a few yards in field position.  Although it’s not very fun for a player to take a knee in the end zone, it’s often the smart play.

When players do elect to return the ball from their end zone, is it a smart play?  Instead of relying on my limited viewing, let’s dig into the numbers from the Play Index of pro-football-reference.com to find out (though the first 13 weeks of the 2015 season):

2015

  • Kickoffs: 1,934
  • Touchbacks: 1,115
  • Returns (total): 812
  • Returns (on kicks that reach the end zone): 559
  • Avg. Field Position on all returns: Own 24 Yard Line
  • Median Field Position on all returns: Own 22 Yard Line
  • Avg. Field Position on all returns: Own 23 Yard Line
  • Median Field Position on all returns: Own 21 Yard Line

The median field position would be defined as half of all returns result in worse field position than the 21 yard line, and half of all returns result in better field position than the 21 yard line. By this measure, returners are making a smart decision overall when returning on balls that reach the end zone. However, this does not take into account penalties by the return team (starting field position above is determined before any penalties incurred) and does not take into account players turning over the ball via fumble on a return.

Digging a little deeper, when is it smart to take a ball out of the end zone?  All else being equal it will make more sense to return a ball when it’s just one yard deep rather than nine yards deep.  But how much variation is there?

  

# of Returns

Avg. Field Starting Position

Median Starting Field Position

Touchdowns

0 yards deep

70

Own 25

Own 20

1

1 yard deep

40

Own 25

Own 20

2

2 yards deep

62

Own 26

Own 23

0

3 yards deep

73

Own 22

Own 20

0

4 yards deep

78

Own 23

Own 20

0

5 yards deep

101

Own 25

Own 21

1

6 yards deep

39

Own 21

Own 19

0

7 yards deep

38

Own 20

Own 20

0

8 yards deep

45

Own 22

Own 20

1

9 yards deep

13

Own 18

Own 18

0

Total

559

Own 23

Own 21

5

Again, the numbers above do not take into account turnovers or penalties that hurt a receiving team’s field position (or penalties on the return team that help field position, though those penalties are much less common).

In short, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises here. Players that elect to return the ball from more than 5 yards deep have just one touchdown on the year and are more likely to get tackled before they reach the 20 yard line than they are to pass their own 20 yard line.  Of course, it may very well be a rationale decision to return a kick 9 yards deep if it’s an above average return player and/or a team is down by a lot of points and in a position in which they need to take chances.  But more often than not they’re in worse shape than they would have been had they taken a knee.

One final note on what to expect the rest of the season – the table below shows how many kickoffs have resulted in returns by week this season.  In the first week of the season less than 30% of kicks resulted in returns, whereas by week 13 over half of all kicks were returned.  As the weather gets cooler (despite record warm temperatures across the country), kickoffs do not travel as far on average, which will result in both kicks not reaching the end zone that have to be returned, and kicks not traveling as deep into the end zone that will be more likely to be returned.  Even though there we’re projecting that there will be 1,083 returns based on the first 13 weeks of the season, there will likely be more than that, though likely less than the 1,226 seen last year.

Week

Total Kickoffs

Returns

%

1

161

47

29.2%

2

163

50

30.7%

3

156

47

30.1%

4

151

63

41.7%

5

141

46

32.6%

6

147

65

44.2%

7

141

61

43.3%

8

150

60

40.0%

9

140

65

46.4%

10

136

63

46.3%

11

133

56

42.1%

12

157

63

40.1%

13

158

87

55.1%

Though there have been some proposals to eliminate kickoffs completely, that will likely not happen any time soon, despite the anti-climactic starts to games that result from so many touchbacks. Instead, teams may be better suited to coach their players to return balls that reach the end zone in only select circumstances, as teams are often better off just taking a knee.



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