Despite the fact that kickoff returns dropped nearly in half since the NFL moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line in 2011, owners adopted a new rule this season in a bid to cut down on returns even further as a way to reduce injuries.
In the end, though, former NFL kicker Jay Feely is convinced that the opposite is about to happen.
“My guess is that there will be a dramatic uptick in returns,” said Feely, an NFL kicker for 14 seasons before retiring in 2014 who now is a pro and college football analyst for CBS. “I talk to a lot of coaches, and a lot of them are saying they’re not going to go for touchbacks.”
The new rule is designed to dissuade teams from returning kicks by spotting the ball after a touchback at the 25-yard line. Because the previous rule put the ball at the 20-yard line, and because most kickoffs travel deep into the end zone anyway, coaches theoretically would prefer to take the ball five yards beyond the previous placement. But that five yards might entice the kicking teams into purposely placing kickoffs near the goal line and thus prod the receiving team to return the kick.
If that’s the case and kickoff returns increase, the intent of the new rule may backfire.
“If you kicked a touchback 100 percent of the time, you’d be last in the NFL in the average start [of drives],” Feely said. “There was only one team last year with an average start past the 25, and that was the Vikings at 25.1. So as a coach, am I willing to give up those five yards every time [on a touchback]? When coaches look at the numbers, you’re 2 percent more likely to score points from the 25 than you are from the 20. In a game that has so much parity and comes down to such slim margins, are you willing to give up a point and a half per game?”
Good question, and one that’s about to be answered as the regular season unfolds.
Kickoff returns have been dramatically reduced since kickoffs were moved from the 30 to the 35 starting in 2011. The number of kickoffs returned went from 80.1 percent in 2010 to 53.5 percent the next year. Last season, only 41.1 percent of all kickoffs were returned, the lowest in NFL history. Still, members of the competition committee want to see even fewer returns because of the high injury rates caused by the jarring collisions that occur on the high-speed play.
“There are still quite a few injuries on kickoffs, and we’d like to see that number reduced,” said Giants president and co-owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee. “We’ll have to see how it goes.”
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s director of officiating, said in an officiating video distributed last week to media members that the league will examine the new rule after about a month to see if there are any trends. The new rule was passed on a one-year basis, so if the league sees that there is a significant increase in the return rate, the old rule could go back into effect next season.
“We have to wait and see what happens during the regular season, and we can’t look at just one week,” Blandino said. “Typically, we look at four weeks as a significant enough sample size to make an opinion as to how a rule change is working.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was a special teams assistant before he began concentrating on defense and eventually became a head coach, is anxious to see how things unfold.
“I think you’re seeing some directional kicking [in the preseason],” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going to really see how this is going to play out until the start of the games. I think teams are doing things to get ready, but they’re not doing some of the things that they’re going to do when the regular season starts. So we’ll just wait and see.”
In a worst-case scenario, Feely sees an increase of close to 20 percent of kickoffs returned — from near 40 percent to about 60 percent. He said he cautioned NFL officials during a recent meeting they had with television analysts that returns could skyrocket.
“With the new rule the way it is, you now have an incentive to kneel [in the end zone for a touchback], and I think a lot of coaches will respond to that by kicking it to the 3-yard line outside the [yard line] numbers and try and cover the kicks to pin the team down,” Feely said. “If that’s the case, then you’re going to see a lot more returns, which is what the league is trying to avoid. . . . ”