Breaking Down NFL's New Kickoff Rule


The NFL approved changes to the way teams kick off yesterday, and it should have positive consequences for the Colts.

Though other changes were initially discussed, the final change involved moving the kickoff back to the 35 yard line and only allowing coverage teams a five yard running start.

Conspiracy theorists, in Boston and Jacksonville specifically, will surly note this as yet another in a 'long line' of rule changes aimed to help the Colts.  While such crazy talk is amusing, it's wrong-headed in this instance.  Kickoffs are a particularly dangerous play, and by seeking to make them safer, the NFL is sending a message that is all about the CBA fight and the eventual move toward 18 games, which I still consider inevitable despite objections by the players.

The original changes suggested included placing the ball on the 25 following touchbacks.  This would create the incentive for returners to take a knee if the ball was kicked one or two yards deep in the end zone, further reducing the number of returns.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've had an irrational hatred of the kickoff since I was 8 years old.  I used to play a dice based football game with a friend, and I would always choose the touchback on a change of possession.  I didn't care what my odds of a big return were, I was terrified of the fumble.  Ever since, I've hated special teams play.  I know that most fans think it's the most exciting part of the game, but I don't.  Because kick returns are essentially random events, I've grown to despise them.  In my mind, anything that reduces the impact of random plays on the game is a good thing.

This change ought to have the following effects:

  • A league-wide reduction in offense.  Because even the worst special teams units generally start on the good side of the 20 after kickoffs (I believe Indy started around the 22), an increase in touchbacks will move average starting field position backwards for all NFL teams.  Teams with good return games will be hurt more than teams with bad return games, but all teams should see their average starting field position go backwards, even Indy.  There is a very strong relationship between starting field position and the points a team can expect to score.  The cumulative effect of dozens of extra touchbacks will be a reduction in scoring. As noted, the Colts should feel this pinch far less than most teams, as it will likely affect their starting field position after kickoffs by less than a yard or so.
  • Points become 'more valuable'.  Everyone knows that a touchdown is worth 6 points and an extra point is worth 1.  Only that's not really true.  When considering game probabilities, you have to discount touchdowns and field goals by the results of the next kickoff.  By raising the likelihood of a touchback (thus reducing the likelihood of a return for a score and probably hurting the starting field position of the other team), the amount that you have to 'discount' the touchdown or field goal is reduced.  Again, this is good news for teams who score a lot.  Essentially, each touchdown is more valuable than it was before.
  • From a defensive perspective, a team like the Colts ought to see real improvement.  Because the Colts cover kicks so poorly, an increase in touchbacks should dramatically help.  The longer the fields their opponents have, the better the defense will look.  Pat McAfee had touchbacks 17.6% of the time, and that number should sky rocket. In the playoffs, McAfee pounded several kicks deep into the endzone, that were still returned by the Jets who had no fear of the Colts special teams.  An extra five yards on his final kickoff could well have won the game for Indianapolis.
  • Fewer injuries.  If this does make the game safer, it can only help Indianapolis which has been slammed by injuries every year since 2006.

Ultimately, the rule change isn't about what is best for any one team.  It's part of a larger bargaining chip. The league HAS to make the game safer if it wants to survive the coming wave of data on head trauma.  It has to show that it takes the players' health seriously even as they prepare to ask for an 18 game season.  If in the process, football becomes less random (some would say exciting), all the better. 

I find randomness frustrating, not exciting, so I don't mind the change.


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