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NewsTactics emerge with new touchback rule

Tactics emerge with new touchback rule

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Football Zebras analysis

When the owners passed a new touchback rule for kickoffs last March, it lead to wide speculation in the offseason that kickers would exploit the rule to their advantage. By moving the touchback line to the 25-yard line, the Competition Committee was looking to reduce the number of optional returns from the end zone and instead opt for the touchback. But would kickers deliberately kick the ball short of the end zone — the so-called mortar kick — to remove the touchback option, allowing the kicking team coverage to pin the opponent short of the touchback line?

With the first four weeks of the season in the books, there is now enough data to see what tactics have emerged. Football Zebras has compiled the kickoff data from the NFL game information.

As expected, teams are taking the five extra yards with the new touchback spot. While 1 out of 3 kickoffs were returned out of the end zone in 2015, that has dropped to 1 in 5 through the first four weeks of this season. This is showing that the rule is working as intended. Since it was only passed for one season, owners will review the statistics to consider making the rule permanent next season. However, it has to be weighed against the statistics that show mortar kicks are up.

Last season, 86.8% of kickoffs were kicked into or out of the end zone, while through the first four weeks of 2016, that number dropped to 80.2%. This means that, while the number of optional returns by the receiving team are up, there are fewer opportunities to take a touchback. On the other hand, it is important to note that all but one kicker, Phil Dawson of the 49ers, has more mortar kicks than end zone kicks, although he has split kickoff duties with punter Bradley Pinion. (Texans kicker Nick Novak is 50/50 with kicks reaching the end zone.) This mortar-kick tactic has become somewhat of an unintended consequence of the new rule.

  2015* 2016
Kickoffs that reach the end zone 86.8% 80.2%
Of those kickoffs that reach the end zone, % touchbacks 67.0% 77.9%
Average start of drive 21.7 24.4

Some kickers are relatively unaffected by the new rule; nine kickers have a percentage of mortar kicks is under 10%. Included in that count are Browns kicker Patrick Murray and Pinion, who have kicked the ball into the end zone every time they swing their leg on a kickoff. Murray is now on injured reserve.

Of note, four AFC East kickers top the list of most advantageous field position regardless of kick distance, which is as much a credit to the kicking team coverage as it is the kicker. A long return is always the risk if a kicker takes the touchback option off the table.

Kickers’ tendencies

Statistics through Week 4, ranked by overall Net±25. Net±25: Yards receiving team gained (+) or lost (-) relative to the 25-yard line. Touchbacks are averaged in as a zero. For statistical purposes, a kick return ends at the spot of a fumble or return team’s penalty, but the penalty yardage is not included in the Net±25. 

      In end zone  Short of end zone All kickoffs
      # Net±25  # Net±25  % short  Net±25
1 Dan Carpenter BUF 6 –4.5 4 –7.3 40.0% –5.6
2 Stephen Gostkowski NE 15 –2.9 4 –4.8 21.1% –3.3
3 Jordan Gay BUF 6 –1.3 1 –9.0 14.3% –2.4
4 Nick Folk NYJ 13 –3.2 5 +0.6 27.8% –2.1
5 Caleb Sturgis PHI 14 –1.4 5 –3.0 26.3% –1.8
6 Greg Zuerlein LA 15 –0.8 1 –10.0 6.3% –1.4
  Justin Tucker BAL 12 –1.7 8 –0.9 40.0% –1.4
8 Nick Novak HOU 9 –1.8 9 –0.9 50.0% –1.3
  Matthew Bosher ATL 29 –1.0 1 –8.0 3.3% –1.3
10 Chris Boswell PIT 19 –1.9 2 +5.0 9.5% –1.2
11 Pat McAfee IND 20 –1.0 4 –2.0 16.7% –1.1
12 Brandon McManus DEN 17 0.0 7 –3.6 29.2% –1.0
  Sebastian Janikowski OAK 15 +0.9 6 –5.7 28.6% –1.0
14 Graham Gano CAR 18 –0.4 5 –2.0 21.7% –0.7
  Chandler Catanzaro AZ 18 –1.1 1 +6.0 5.3% –0.7
16 Roberto Aguayo TB 15 +0.6 1 –19.0 6.3% –0.6
  Mason Crosby GB 14 –1.9 2 +8.5 12.5% –0.6
  Sam Martin DET 15 –0.9 3 +1.3 16.7% –0.6
19 Dan Bailey DAL 19 –0.8 3 +1.3 13.6% –0.5
20 Andrew Franks MIA 9 0.0 5 –1.2 35.7% –0.4
  Josh Lambo SD 23 –0.5 4 0.0 14.8% –0.4
22 Dustin Hopkins WAS 21 +0.2 4 –3.0 16.0% –0.3
  Josh Brown NYG 8 –0.1 3 –0.7 27.3% –0.3
24 Bradley Pinion SF 8 –0.1 0 0.0% –0.1
  Wil Lutz NO 16 –0.4 6 +0.7 27.3% –0.1
  Connor Barth CHI 11 –0.5 2 +2.0 15.4% –0.1
27 Steven Hauschka SEA 18 +0.3 1 –5.0 5.3% +0.1
28 Mike Nugent CIN 18 +1.0 2 –7.5 10.0% +0.2
29 Randy Bullock NYG 3 0.0 1 +1.0 25.0% +0.3
  Blair Walsh MIN 15 +0.2 6 +0.7 28.6% +0.3
31 Jason Myers JAX 15 +0.7 2 –1.5 11.8% +0.5
32 Cody Parkey CLE 10 –0.3 1 +12.0 9.1% +0.8
33 Cairo Santos KC 13 –1.8 4 +11.0 23.5% +1.2
34 Ryan Succop TEN 11 –0.3 3 +13.3 21.4% +2.6
35 Patrick Murray CLE 7 +2.9 0 0.0% +2.9
36 Phil Dawson SF 2 0.0 7 +4.9 77.8% +3.8
  All kickers NFL 497 –0.6 123 –0.5 19.8% –0.6

 

The other aspect of the rule change is to determine how many kick returners will choose to run the ball out of the end zone. The Competition Committee felt that giving an extra five yards for a touchback this year will be enough of an incentive to avoid returning a kick. Out of the kicks that reached the end zone in 2015, 33% of them were returned, as the remainder resulted in touchbacks. In the first four weeks of that season, the returners are opting to stay in the end zone more, as the percentage of kicks returned from the end zone dropped to 22.1%.

Only the Philadelphia Eagles elect to return end zone kickoffs more than take the touchback, while the Kansas City Chiefs split the returns half and half. The rest of the teams decide to take the touchback more often than risk the return. The Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns are the only two teams who have never returned a kickoff from their own end zone.

Another important statistic to note is the leaguewide average of starting field position following a kickoff. On average, kickoffs will approximately result in an offense starting their drive just behind the 25-yard line, no matter if the kick is short or into the end zone. On average, teams are 2.7 yards further downfield than they were after a kickoff last season.

Receiving teams’ tendencies

Statistics through Week 4 (ranked by overall Net±25.) Net±25: Yards receiving team gained (+) or lost (-) relative to the 25-yard line. Touchbacks are averaged in as a zero. For statistical purposes, a kick return ends at the spot of a fumble or return team’s penalty, but the penalty yardage is not included in the Net±25. 

    In end zone Short of end zone All kickoffs
  Team # % returned Net±25 # Net±25 Net±25
1 Vikings 8 37.5% –0.9 3 +18.3 +4.4
2 Ravens 13 46.2% +2.8 0 +2.8
3 Jets 14 35.7% +2.2 7 +1.9 +2.1
4 Washington 17 5.9% 0.0 4 +5.8 +1.1
5 Bills 11 27.3% –1.4 5 +5.2 +0.7
6 Cowboys 14 7.1% +0.4 4 +1.0 +0.5
7 Panthers 16 18.8% +0.1 7 +1.3 +0.4
  Colts 21 9.5% +0.3 5 +0.8 +0.4
9 Broncos 16 18.8% +0.1 0 +0.1
10 Falcons 17 17.6% –0.4 5 +0.8 –0.1
11 Eagles 7 57.1% –0.3 0 –0.3
  Packers 12 0.0% 0.0 3 –1.7 –0.3
  49ers 20 15.0% –0.3 3 –0.7 –0.3
14 Titans 11 27.3% –0.1 9 –0.7 –0.4
15 Giants 21 23.8% –0.2 2 –3.0 –0.5
  Rams 16 25.0% +0.6 1 –19.0 –0.5
17 Browns 16 0.0% 0.0 6 –2.5 –0.7
18 Seahawks 11 18.2% –1.3 1 +2.0 –1.0
  Buccaneers 24 4.2% –0.5 3 –5.3 –1.0
20 Steelers 16 12.5% –0.8 3 –2.3 –1.1
21 Saints 19 10.5% –0.3 7 –3.9 –1.2
22 Chargers 17 29.4% –1.2 2 –2.0 –1.3
23 Texans 13 38.5% –2.0 4 +0.5 –1.4
24 Bengals 15 13.3% –1.3 4 –2.3 –1.5
  Jaguars 16 31.3% –1.8 8 –1.0 –1.5
26 Bears 13 23.1% –1.8 8 –1.1 –1.6
27 Dolphins 20 25.0% –0.9 3 –6.7 –1.7
28 Lions 21 38.1% –1.9 1 –2.0 –1.9
29 Raiders 16 25.0% –2.6 6 –0.3 –2.0
30 Chiefs 18 50.0% –2.8 4 –1.0 –2.5
  Patriots 13 30.8% –2.2 1 –6.0 –2.5
32 Cardinals 15 26.7% –1.9 4 –8.0 –3.2
  All teams 497 22.1% –0.6 123 –0.5 –0.6

Sources: NFL statistics, Football Zebras research. Photo: Garrett Campbell/Washington.

Notes: *2015 data excludes only end of half, onside, and kicking team recoveries. †2016 kickoff data excludes: kickoff at end of half (1), onside kicks (9), kicking team recovered a muffed kick (1), safety kicks (4), kicks out of bounds (5), and kicks that did not reach the 20-yard line (3).

Cameron Filipe
Cameron Filipe

Cam Filipe is a freshman at the University of New Haven, majoring in forensic science. He has been involved in football officiating for five years and currently works as a flag football and soccer official in college. This is his second season covering officiating as a staff writer for Football Zebras.

One thought on “Tactics emerge with new touchback rule

  1. Interesting. The rule change was intended to improve safety, right? How have injuries on kickoffs gone so far compared to previous seasons?

    The change has also produced a few particularly entertaining plays when receivers made bad decisions in the moment, perhaps because they’re still adjusting to the new dynamic. I like the added value that this gives precise kickers (possibly because I’m a Bills fan, given the above numbers). For my entertainment’s sake, I hope it’s been good for safety so that they keep it.

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