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.
|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.
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|
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|
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).