Looking back at revised kickoff rule
Posted Jan. 09 at 03:35 PM
Now that the regular season is over, we can look back and take a more extensive look at the revised kickoff rule. It’s been overshadowed by Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and the year’s historic passing numbers, but recall for a moment that the league moved kickoffs up to the 35 yard line.
If you wind the clock back to August, you’ll see that many said there would be a huge decrease in kickoff returns, kickoff return touchdowns and probably a decrease in overall scoring – with more teams starting in poor field position.
Right, right and definitely wrong.
The actual kickoffs went as excepted, with a whole bunch of them getting banged into the end zone. Teams on average returned only 43 kickoffs. The previous three years, they averaged 64 kickoff returns, so about a one-third reduction in that area. On average, teams lost 427 kickoff return yards.
About 675 kickoffs that would have been returned under the old rules were turned into touchbacks (that makes it all the more impressive that Darren Sproles was able to break the all-time record for combined run-rec-ret yardage).
Similarly, touchdowns on kick returns decreased. In the three seasons prior to last year, there were an average of 18 touchdowns scored on kickoff returns. That dropped to 9 last year. The new rule did take away from exciting plays there – probably about 8-10 kickoff return touchdowns were turned into touchbacks.
But kickoffs that were actually returned tended to be slightly more exciting. Teams averaged 23.8 yards on returns last year. That’s the highest of any of the last 10 years – 2 yards higher than some of those years. Maybe that rule limiting kickoff teams to a 5-yard run-up window had an effect, or maybe those coverage units were lulled into a false sense of security by the higher rate of touchback. (Or maybe teams with better returners simply were more likely to run them out of the end zone.)
The second-level concerns about teams tending to start in poorer field position, and that resulting in more punts and less scoring, simply didn’t happen. There were plenty of yards and points in the 2011 season. Many would argue that there was too much offense in the game last season. (And if 675 kickoff returns were turned to touchbacks, that also saved time, allowing offenses to run maybe another 300 offensive plays).
Bottom line: I’m not crazy about the kickoff rule change. Too many touchbacks, which is a boring play. But it’s not a rule that kills or significantly hurts the game, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
KICKOFF RETURN DATA, 2001-2011
No Yards Avg TD Season
64 1394 21.6 .31 2001
69 1501 21.8 .53 2002
68 1456 21.6 .41 2003
67 1461 21.7 .53 2004
67 1488 22.3 .38 2005
64 1435 22.5 .28 2006
65 1467 22.6 .78 2007
66 1508 22.8 .41 2008
63 1417 22.6 .56 2009
64 1419 22.3 .72 2010
43 1021 23.8 .28 2011
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