Percy Harvin (Mike McGinnis/Viking Update)
The alteration in kickoff rules dramatically changed the impact of the returners. The numbers show the incredible effect a 5-yard move made on kickoff returns, and it isn’t good for those who enjoy the excitement of a kickoff return.
Every offseason, the NFL makes changes through its competition committee to improve the game. The definition of “improve” is up to debate. Ask defensive players about rules changes and you will get a much different impression than those who play on offense. Over the last decade, rules changes have consistently opened up things for offenses and made it more difficult for defensive tough guys to impose their will. Although the quarter-century passing record of Dan Marino for most yards in a single season was shattered this year, the increase in passing yards has been incremental, not a night-and-day type of change.
The alteration made to the kicking game last offseason was ostensibly put in to protect players on the coverage teams who would be at a full sprint from their own 30-yard line – making violent contact with opponents down the field. But what the league did is unprecedented in how simply moving the ball five yards forward could make such a difference in how the game is played.
In 2010, there were 2,539 kickoffs in the NFL. In 2011, there were 2,572 kickoffs – indicative that there wasn’t much of a change in the amount of scoring plays from one year to the next. On average, the NFL’s 32 teams combined to have just two more kickoffs per week than in the previous year, but what happened on those kickoffs was markedly different.
In 2010, NFL kickers combined to have just 416 touchbacks on kickoffs – an average of just 17 percent. Many fans agree that one of the most exciting plays in football is the game-changing kickoff return. Players like Devin Hester and Percy Harvin can tip the momentum of a game by following up an opponent’s score with a back-breaking kick return that can kill momentum.
The NFL did its best to neutralize those dynamic playmakers by moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line and the result was pronounced. In 2011, the number of touchbacks spiked to 1,120 – more than 45 percent of all kicks and a 269 percent jump from the 2010 total. The entire 2010 season total was passed in Week 6. Whether intended or not, perhaps no rules change has impacted the game like this move did.
Not only did it drastically reduce the number of kickoffs that were returned, it changed how teams addressed returns. Whether out of frustration or a change of philosophy, the results were just as marked on those kicks that were returned.
Prior to this past season, if a kickoff went five yards deep into the end zone, it was almost never returned. A kick five yards deep this year was almost always returned because of the lack of opportunities. The results on those kicks were just as pronounced.
In 2010, the average starting position after a kickoff was the 27-yard line. In 2011, the average starting position was the 22-yard line. In 2010, 387 kickoff returns led to that team’s offense starting a drive inside the 20-yard line. In 2011, 490 drives on kick returns started inside the 20-yard line. At first look, it would seem that the difference was just 27 percent, but that is only part of the story.
What those numbers don’t factor in is how many kicks were actually returned. In 2010, the 387 drives that started inside the 20 were the result of 212 kicks that were returned – just 18 percent of those kicks that were returned. In 2011, 34 percent of all kicks returned didn’t make it out to the 20-yard line – more than one of every three.
The numbers grew exponentially across the board. Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell had just three kickoffs that went for touchbacks in 2010. In 2011, he had 19 – more than six times as many. Detroit’s Jason Hanson had just three touchbacks in 2010. His number jumped to 45 this year – 15 times as many. Tampa Bay had just one touchback in the entirety of the 2010 season. The Bucs had 37 this year.
In 2010, almost half the league (15 teams) had fewer than 10 touchbacks. In 2011, nobody had fewer than 10 touchbacks and only five teams had fewer than 20. A change from one year to next in a statistical category has never been as pronounced as this.
While the potential exists that teams will find a way to counter the new rules and devise blocking schemes that will make returns from deep in the end zone more successful, but the simple reality is that no rules change has created a bigger difference – many would contend for the worse – than the kickoff line change has done.
Will the NFL change the kickoff line back to the 30-yard line next year? Probably not. Should they? You bet they should. Few plays in the game are more exciting and potentially game-changing than putting the ball in the hands of an electrifying return man and letting him do what he does. The rules change has taken that element of the game and rendered it moot in many respects. It has done what the NFL has never wanted – made a portion of its game once viewed as the most exciting into something routine and boring.
The league likely isn’t going to make any wholesale change because, for the most part, it would be an admission that it was wrong to make the switch. But the numbers don’t lie. Never has one rule change had such a universal impact on the game – a change that most believe is to the detriment of the game.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.