Hat tip to Paul and Peter for hashing out this idea with me today at lunch.
The NFL has moved the touchback out to the 25 yard line — ostensibly to reduce the frequency of returns and associated injuries. Three weeks in, it doesn’t seem to be working. Personally, if Belichick is kicking it short I’m inclined to think he’s on to something. The experiment isn’t an abject failure; it’s also not a success.
In calculus, when searching for minima (like percentage of kickoffs returned) you must also check the boundary conditions. For kickoffs, both extremes are counter productive. Move touchbacks out to the 40 and every team will kick short and force a return. Push them back to the 10 and every fielded kick will be returned. The sweet spot is somewhere in between, but going from the 20 to the 25 hasn’t radically changed the percentages.
But trying to increase the likelihood of touchbacks isn’t even a good objective in the first place. PATs were too boring, so they were moved to the 15-yard line. Touchbacks are at least as dull as short PAT. Why are we actively trying to make kickoffs more boring?1
Our first idea was to eliminate kickoffs entirely and give the other team the ball at the 20 or 25, but then we’d have none of this:
Unacceptable. So thinking like a Systems Engineer, let’s define the requirements:
- This play should usually result in a change of possession,
- but there needs to be a chance that it doesn’t.
- Drives should typically start between the 15- and 25-yard lines,
- but it should be possible to pin someone deep, or score an immediate TD.
- Player safety should be improved.
Here’s the proposal: instead of a kickoff, the scoring team gets the ball at their own 40 yard line with a 4th and 10 or 4th and 15. Let’s check the boxes:
- Change of possession: Under nominal game circumstances the smart move is to punt.
- But not always: In dire circumstances the offense can just line up and go for it. I didn’t feel like researching statistics, but the yards-to-go should be tailored to make this as, or slightly more, likely to succeed than an onside kick. Alternatively, the kicking team can rock the fake punt Seahawks style.
- Nominal starting yardage: Knowing where to punt from will require some statistical research, but my gut is the 40. A 60-yard punt is pretty solid, so touchbacks would be rare, but it’s also far enough that most won’t be fair caught. Placing the ball at the 40 also means it only takes a conversion and 20-30 yards to be in field goal range.
- Player safety: kickoffs are dangerous because players build up a full head of steam before setting their blocks or blasting the return guy. On punts, most of the players are blocking at the line of scrimmage. The gunners and their blockers are running, but they are side-by-side and jockeying for position more than laying each other out.
- As a bonus, a receiving team without a good return person, or who needs to score fast, can sell out for the block.
The kickoff is broken, and even the owners recognize it. But fans endure kickoffs because they’re occasionally exciting — and because the commercial breaks on either side are a good time to warm up the queso. If we’re considering change, it shouldn’t be to increase the chances that an oft-boring play is even more likely to be boring. A punt has all the positive attributes of a kick off, improves player safety, and is already a well-established and exciting part of the game.