For years now, it seems both pro and college football have been tinkering with a variety of rules in order to ostensibly “make the game safer.” I put that phrase in quotes because when it comes to things like adding a 17th regular season game, or shortening the recovery timeframe of players by flexing Thursday games, the league seems utterly unconcerned about player safety.
However, given the times we live in, the lawyers have apparently determined that it’s in the league’s best interest to put on a good show around this issue.
To that end, the league has zoned in on kick-off returns, which data suggests have historically accounted for an outsized portion of concussions. For instance, a study of Ivy League football games in 2015 found that – although only accounting for 6% of all plays – kick off returns made up 21% of the concussion-inducing plays. Kick offs tend to involve lots of players running headlong into each other at high speeds, so there’s a certain degree of intuitive obviousness to the discovery.
In response to this initial finding, the kickoff line was moved up from the 35 yard line to the 40 yard line, and the touchback line was moved from the 25 yard line back to the 20 yard line. The rationale for the first element was that moving the kick up would make it easier for the kicker to register touchbacks, through the opposing endzone. Presumably, the rationale for the second element was that, by pushing touchbacks back 5 yards, kicking teams would see them as less punitive, and therefore more appealing.
What actually happened?
Touchbacks increased dramatically after the change. They went from about 18% of kicks before the change to 48% of them after the rule update. Concussions also dropped significantly, from a rate of around 11 per 1,000 plays beforehand to just over 2 per 1,000 plays. As a point of reference the concussion rate for other sorts of plays was between 1-2.5 per 1,000; and, curiously, the rate for punt returns was only about 1 per 1,000 plays.
Building upon those finding, in 2018, college football added a rule that returners could call a fair catch anywhere inside the 25-yard line and receive the ball at the 25. After that fair catch rule went into place, kickoff returns decreased from 52% to 40%, and held there, at least through 2020.
The pros follow suit
Below are a series of actions the NFL has taken on kickoff rules over the course of the last decade or so.
- Touchbacks are moved from the 20 yard line to the 25 yard line (presumably to incentivize receiving teams to take touchbacks).
- Kicking team can’t have a running start.
- 5 players on each side of the ball on the kicking team.
- No wedge blocks.
- The area between the kicking 35 and the 50 is a “no blocking zone” until the ball hits the ground or is touched.
- Receiving team must keep at least 8 players in the “setup zone” between their 40 and the kicking team’s 45.
- If the ball goes into the endzone, it’s an automatic touchback.
This constellation of changes dropped the onside kick success rate from 19% to 8%.
Unhappy with the fact that onside kick success was dropping, the league tinkered again:
- The receiving team can’t keep more than 9 players in the “setup zone” (teams had been stacking the zone with 10 players).
Despite these changes, the NFL, like all great competitions, is an arm’s race. And, in arm’s races, savvy teams look at the various incentives in place, and shape their solutions accordingly.
While the 2016 touchback change created an incentive for receiving teams to pass on the return – by giving them free 5 yards – it simultaneously disincentivized kicking teams from doing them, by stealing 5 yards from them. So what happened? Kicking teams adjusted.
Kickers focused on strategically increasing their hang time, getting the ball high in front of the endzone – but not into the endzone – so that the coverage team could make it downfield in time to tackle the return man before he got to the 25. The ultimate result:
And if you look at that kicking strategy, it actually makes sense. The average kickoff return last year was about 23 yards (before the 2016 change, it was about 24 yards), so choosing to get creative on the kickoff – on average – saves a kicking team about 2 yards per return over kicking into the endzone, which over a season, could be significant.
Even though the reality is this effect was spotted as early as 2016, the first season the rule went into effect, the league finally decided to take action on the situation this offseason.
- A one-year trial that mimics the college rule described above, where a fair catch anywhere inside the 25 yard automatically results in the ball being placed on the 25.
The League has run the numbers, and the computers tell them this will work:
The NFL said its statistical models predict the return rate for kickoffs in 2023, under the new rule, will drop from 38% to 31% and that the rate of concussions on the sport’s most dangerous play will be reduced by 15%.
But will it work?
On the one hand, we have the natural experiment of what happened in college football in 2018, where a similar rule change resulted in a 12-point decrease in the percentage of kickoffs returned, so an expectation that this corresponding move by the NFL will drop returns by a similar margin (~18-23%) seems probable.
On the other hand, what sorts of adaptations can we expect on the part of kicking teams, who stand, potentially, to lose even more as a result of this rule change? Well, they’re already telling us:
“I suspect you’ll see more returns than less. That’s just what I’m thinking right now, but we’ll see what happens.” – Bears Coach, Matt Eberflus
Eberflus, and several others, have already predicted an increase in squib and line drive kicks, intended to get over the heads of the players in the “setup zone” but designed to land well in front of the kick returners, in order to preclude the opportunity to execute a fair catch.
Will that result in a safer situation, as players on the return team hunt around furiously for a bouncing target – heads pointed down towards the ground – as the gunners on the return team hone in like heat seeking missiles on a live ball? Only time will tell. But the one thing we can be sure of is to expect the unexpected.