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2023 rule changes

Statistics show a narrow benefit to the NFL’s new kickoff rule

Coaches will be looking at the statistics of returns with the fair-catch touchback rule.



In a surprise move, NFL owners voted to approve a proposal that allows players to fair catch kickoffs inside their own 25-yard line and be awarded a touchback. The proposal was tabled during the March owners meeting and most thought it had little chance of passage. However, the NFL has adopted this rule change for one year only and it appears to be identical to the NCAA fair catch rule instituted in 2018.

The new rule is expected to have a significant impact on the game. In 2022, according to data provided by our partner website Quirky Research, 73.5% of kickoffs reached the end zone, with 59.5% of them resulting in a touchback. Outside of a few surprise returns from deep in the end zone, which caught the kicking team off guard and resulted in a long return, most kicks that reached the end zone were taken as touchbacks. The average kick return (including penalty enforcements) in 2022 was 22.8 yards, and that average return yardage varied depending on where the kick returner fielded the kick.

The illustrated data helps us identify which kicks that don’t reach the endzone will likely be fielded as a fair catch under the new rule. The average starting position of drives for kicks fielded between the goal line and the two-yard line was inside the 25-yard line. This indicates that it is advantageous for teams to fair catch kicks that are fielded near their goal line. However, there is still the potential for long kick returns on these deeper kicks. For example, 69% of kicks fielded between the goal line and the two-yard line were returned 25 yards or less. That means 31% of kicks were returned further than what the return team would have achieved from a fair-catch touchback. Once kicks are fielded further upfield (beyond the three-yard line), the data indicates that kick returns become even more advantageous, resulting in an average starting position of drives beyond the 25-yard line. In the NFL, where every yard counts, it will be interesting to see how coaches, both conservative and aggressive, use this type of historical data to develop their kicking game plan.

In addition to this examination of historical NFL data, we can also find out how this exact rule change affected kickoffs in college football after its implementation in 2018. Zack Tyszkiewicz of Saturday Blitz looked at the NCAA kickoff data from 2018 and 2019 and compared it to the seasons prior to the rule change. He found that the average number of returns dropped from 3.1 returns per game before the rule change to 2.6 returns per game after the rule change. The average number of return yards per game also dropped from 65.9 yards per game to 48.2 yards per game. Interestingly, the total number of kickoffs returned for touchdowns continued a historical downward trend that did not significantly change with the rule introduction in 2018. Finally, while the total number of touchbacks increased dramatically in 2018, it again continued an upward trend that had started in 2013. During the 2013 season, there were 3,217 touchbacks; in 2019 there were 3,920, an increase of 22%.

These statistics can’t predict how each NFL team’s coaching staff will change their approach to kickoffs due to this new rule. A key nuance to the rule is that once a kick has touched the ground, a player cannot call for a fair catch. Does that mean we will see more squib kicks throughout the game? Perhaps, but there are risks with those types of kicks as well. This is likely topic #1 in team special teams’ meeting rooms. While it may disappoint fans to see fewer kick returns, there is no denying that a likely reduction in kick returns during the season will improve player safety.

Chris currently resides in Michigan and has been a sports official for over 30 years. By day, he works in research in the automotive industry. By night, when he isn't watching his kids play sports, he officiates high school football, softball, and basketball while nerding out on all things related to officiating.

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