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Post The impact of the new kickoff rules

Tuesday November 20, 2012

The folks over at the reddit CFB community have done some legwork on a topic I’ve been obsessing over interested in all season. Have the new kickoff rules changed the thinking about how teams approach both the kick and the return?

Click through for the details, but here’s the summary:

  • As you’d expect, touchbacks are much more frequent this year.
  • Returns starting from the endzone only get to the 25 or better less than a third of the time. (Georgia’s experience shows even smaller odds.)
  • If you try to land the ball at the 1 and force a return, the gain in field position is negligible and you slightly increase the chances of the opponent getting a return past the 25.

Kickoffs originated from the 35-yard line prior to 2007 (as they do now), but the touchback rate is still a good bit higher now (36% now versus 31% in 2005). Can touchbacks coming out to the 25-yard line account for the difference?. If the average return out of the endzone before 2007 was close to the current 23.9 yards, then a return made sense under the pre-2007 rules: you gained a few yards of field position, on average, on each return from the endzone since a touchback only came out to the 20. Now with touchbacks coming out to the 25, that same return results in an average loss of a yard or so of field position.

Some additional good observations from the comments: only 5% of returns from the endzone result in big returns to at least a team’s own 45. On the other hand, over 40% of returns from the endzone don’t even make it to a team’s own 20. That large risk for relatively little reward likely plays into a team’s approach to returns even more than the average starting position.

There’s also a thought about injuries: one of the driving reasons behind these rules changes was the intent to reduce the injury rate on one of the most dangerous plays in a game. I haven’t seen any data about injuries on kick returns, but (going way off the scientific path here) I don’t recall many from the games I’ve watched. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been concussions and other injuries where a guy isn’t helped off the field – I just haven’t seen them. That’s no basis from which to draw any kind of conclusion, but we just don’t have the data yet one way or the other.

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