Impact of NFL Touchback Rule Change

by: EVBettor

Starting in 2016, NFL games will have touchbacks (on kickoffs only) start from the 25 yard line, instead of the 20. This will create a new choice paradigm for the special teams coaches, kickers and returners. All leading to an impact in the game scoring dynamic. A breakdown below.

Should I stay or should I go?
The NFL previously made a decision in 2011 to move the kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 to create more touchbacks and it went as planned. Following the new rule change, touchbacks increased over 4x from 11.1% (2000–2011) to 48.3% (2011–2015). The Field Position graph shows touchbacks in green and the huge spike Post-2011 in return men taking a knee (Not all touchbacks start at the 20 yard line due to penalties).

The Pooch
Jay Feely, a long-time NFL-kicker, says that kickers will have the ability to pooch the ball and pin returners at the goal line, forcing a return. The ability to pooch may be true, but will kicking to the opponents goal line actually benefit the defense? Pre-2011 when most kickers did not frequently kick deep into the endzone (they just didn’t have the leg), teams had a median starting field position on kickoff returns (excluding touchbacks) of the 28 yard line, teams post 2011 had a starting field position of the 23. So the 5-yards the league moved the ball back for the kicking-off team moved the ball forward 1 for 1 with how far returners made it out.

Kicking-off team perspective
If you are a specials teams coach, you are now faced with a decision to kick it deep and allow the opposing offense to start with the ball at the 25 OR “pooch” kick it to the goal line. The coaches and kickers can decide to:

  • Pooch — Feely also noted that “the hard part will be about the hangtime”. Thus the return team will likely bring the ball out somewhere between the 23 and 28 yard line (post-2011 and pre-2011 kickoff return starting field position (excluding touchbacks), respectively). Starting field position would likely not be as high as the 28 yard line, due to the kicking-off teams will be 5 yards closer to the blocking wall than they were pre-2011. Although until kickers can control the hangtime, it would likely higher than the 23 as the return team will start running further from their own endzone on a pooch. A major factor to consider for the kicking-off team will be the asymetric downside (tail risk). Notice the non-Gaussian distribution of kickoffs, as your maximum upside as the kicking-off team is pinning them -25 yards deeper and your downside is +75 yards and an opponent house call.
  • Kicking it deep in or through the endzone — Either the opponent starts at the 25 or they attempt a return deep from the endzone.
  • Onside — this dynamic has changed, further discussed at the end.

An about equal starting field position on retuekrns and higher downside indicates most teams will eventually find that forcing the touchback is the superior choice. Of note is the 2016 preseason seeing some kickers try the “pooch” kick strategy. The below GIF is of the Rams vs the Cowboys in Preseason Game 1. Legatron (aka Greg Zuerlein) proves that he doesn’t only have a huge leg, but can also land the ball at the goal line The result is Lucky Whitehead making him look like a dog chasing a car.

Rams attempt a “Pooch” kick and Lucky makes them pay.

Kicking-return team perspective

If every team was given a starting position of the 25 yard line, only TWO teams would NOT get a boost in their year over year (2015 to 2016) average starting field position, the Vikings and Chiefs. Thirty other teams would get a bump in their average starting field position if kicking-off teams pin the returners deep and the kicking-return teams oblige by taking the touchback (green line). Add in the 1.1% risk of fumbles lost on kickoff returns and the incentives are all there for a vast majority of kickoff return teams to take a knee and have the offense start with the ball at the 25, if given the choice. The dashed red line shows the median starting field position of all teams from 2011 to 2015, and that potential increase of ~2 yards makes a significant difference when added up over every scoring possession. A mixture of 25-yard touchbacks, short pooch kicks not going as planned and dynamic returners like Patterson (Vikings) not caring how deep they are pinned makes a ~2 yard increase in starting field position league-wide plausible.

Game Dynamics — Onsides

Another special teams factor to consider will be an increase in clever coaches with surprise onside kicks, as the risk/reward payoff has tilted. Giving a team better starting field position means a higher expected point total for the opponent (and lower net point totals for TDs and FGs), so if you are an astute kicking-off team, attempting a surprise onside makes the expected value of that decision more favorable.

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