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NFL’s New Touchback Rule Hasn’t Worked So Far

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

The NFL improved the starting field position of teams that take touchbacks on kickoffs this season from the 20 yard line to the 25. The hope was it would reduce the number of dangerous kickoff returns as returners would be more apt to not bring it out of the end zone.

The flip side was the possibility teams kicking off would pop it up high and short of the end zone to try and pin the returning team inside the 25.

So far, it appears the league’s hope has not worked. I did a quick search of Pro Football Reference’s Play Index to compare kickoffs between the first three weeks this season and the first three weeks last season. (I did not include the entire 2015 season because early season games have better weather, making it easier to get the ball into the end zone. As the weather gets colder, touchbacks naturally go down, making it less of an apples to apples comparison.)

Back in 2015, 30% of kickoffs were returned through the first three weeks. This year, 37% of kickoffs have been returned. It seems the new rules might be having the opposite of the intended effect.

I know this is only a three week stretch we are monitoring. We will have to continue to look at it over the course of the season. The sample size is not tiny, though. We have almost 500 kickoffs to work with in both 2015 and 2016.