In 2016, the NFL moved touchbacks on kickoffs to the 25 yard line in an attempt to minimize returns, and thus injuries. However, has that move been counter-intuitive in that regard, while also making the touchback non-valuable to the kicking team?
Well, to answer the first question, that move in particular has been minimally effective, but has continued a trend that over the long haul that has been very effective in minimizing injury risk. In 2015 there were 1081 kickoff returns, in each of the last two seasons, 1036 returns. So, the decrease following the touchback change has been marginal. It has actually slowed the decrease that had been occurring since kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line following the 2010 season; where 2033 kicks were returned. In 2017, the Kansas City Chiefs led the league with 47 kickoff returns. That would’ve placed them 31st in the NFL back in 2010. So, yes, the NFL has wanted to decrease kickoffs, and decrease they have, but this recent move hasn’t helped that change much.
Now, on to the titular question. With the touchback moved to the 25, are teams actually helping themselves by seeking touchbacks?
Kicking a touchback gives the opposing team a 0% chance of scoring a touchdown, yes. However, only 7 kicks were returned for scores this year, 0.7%. That number was the same in 2016, so that’s 14 kick returns over two seasons on a 0.7% rate. Though that number is tiny, teams could have a #1 goal of eliminating absolutely all risk of an opposing touchdown, and there’s sense to that.
However, here’s where that sense is questioned. The big play could also go your way. In 2017, 4 kick returns were fumbled back to the kicking team, 0.4%. In 2016, 11 kick returns were fumbled back to the kicking team, so 15 total over the past two seasons. That means over the last two seasons, the odds of a kick return ending in an opposing turnover are about equal to the odds of a kick ending in an opposing touchdown. Though there are situations where “no TD by any means” certainly comes into play, the perceived value of taking a touchback to eliminate TD risk is cancelled out by the equal potential of a positive play that a touchback eliminates.
1% of kick returns in 2017 resulted in a return score or turnover. So, a touchback eliminates a 50-50 chance your team is on the wrong end of that one play out of 100. A total amount of opportunities that, as mentioned before, teams don’t even come halfway to over a full season in this era. In the big play department, a touchback is a net zero.
Here is where the negative value of touchbacks comes into play. The average kick return in 2017 was 21.6 yards, and that includes yardage coming out of the end zone. Let’s estimate that kicks returned out of the end zone culminate around the 20 on average. So, as the kicking team, that means on average allowing a team to return a kick out of its own end zone is somewhere around 5 yards more valuable to you than a touchback would be.
Basically by taking a touchback you are trading about 5 yards of field position (which adds up over an entire season) to eliminate both the approximately 1/150 chance a backbreaker goes against you and the approximately 1/150 chance a game-changer goes your way. Since those two cancel each other out, it can be argued that a touchback is on average simply a net loss of about 5 yards for the kicking team. Of course, I didn’t include 99-yard returns that set up a touchdown or muffed 1-yard returns that set up a safety or great field position for the opponent. This isn’t an exact science. However, this collection of numbers made me start to think that aiming for a touchback seems like a net negative.
The Patriots led the league in kickoff DVOA (value added on kickoff coverage) in 2017; they were 30th in touchback percentage. I think the kickoff is more situational than anything. Sometimes a touchback is perfect for the situation. Sometimes it will just stockpile negative yardage. At the end of the day, you need not the kicker with the most muscular leg, but the kicker talented enough to put the ball wherever it needs to go in a given situation, along with the coaching staff that understands where that is.
Let’s say your kicker can only do either of the following on every one of his kickoffs over an entire season. Which option would you prefer?
This poll is closed
Kicking the ball out of the back of the end zone
Kicking the ball 2-3 yards deep into the end zone