2016 rule changes
In an effort to make the kickoff a play less prone to injury, the touchback spot has been moved up five yards to the 25-yard line. In addition to the new automatic disqualification rule, the modified touchback rule is only in effect as a trial for the 2016 season. At the end of the season, the Competition Committee will review touchback statistics to see if this rule change was able to limit injuries on free-kick runbacks.
In the 2015 season, almost 87% of standard kickoffs (not including onside kicks, kickoffs recovered by the kicking team, and kickoffs that occurred on the last play of the half) reached the end zone. End zone kicks resulted in a touchback 67% of the time. This means that the remaining 33% of kickoffs were taken out of the end zone by the returner, when they could have had the ball spotted at the 20.
At the end of the season, two potential questions will measure the efficacy of the rule: (1) Did the rate of end zone returns decrease? and (2) Did the percentage of kicks that reach the end zone fall below 87%? From the perspective of the kick returner, an extra 5-yard incentive would seemingly persuade them to take the knee as opposed to running the ball out of the end zone. On the other hand, the kicker may deliberately kick the ball short of the goal line, thus forcing the receiving team player to return the ball in the field of play. This tactic could be an unintended consequence of the new rule.
This rule modification is essentially a second attempt by the Competition Committee to make kickoff returns safer. In 2011, the spot of the kickoff was moved five yards closer to the receiving team’s goal line, in an effort to increase touchbacks and limit dangerous returns. Only 16% of kickoffs in the 2010 season were touchbacks, but that jumped to almost 44% after the change.
Similar to a 2012 rules change in the NCAA, this change will only affect touchbacks on kickoffs and safety kicks. All other touchbacks, including punts and end zone turnovers, will result in the standard 20-yard-line touchback spot.
Executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said that the “data will drive future rules.” The goal is to reduce the rate of potential runbacks to protect the returner, the tackler, and the blockers from unnecessary risk of injury. The Competition Committee has always held player safety to the highest standard, and this trial rule change has the potential to protect this safety and make the kickoff less dangerous than it has been in recent years.
If two-thirds of the owners do not vote to keep the new rule at the 2017 meetings, the rule is automatically removed from the books.