The NFL attempted to reduce the injury risk on kickoff returns with a new rule incentivizing teams to take a touchback, and as a result start with the ball on their own 25-yard-line.
The rule made sense in theory: Why run it out of the end zone if a team can get the ball five yards further up than previous touchbacks? In theory, teams wouldn’t bother returning kicks out of the end zone and take the touchback, limiting the number of dangerous returns. But the intended outcome sometimes has unintended consequences in any experiment.
Take the New England Patriots as an example. Rather than booting the ball deep for a touchback before Arizona’s final drive of the game, coach Bill Belichick instructed kicker Stephen Gostkowski to kick it short of the end zone last weekend against the Arizona Cardinals. Belichick forced the Cardinals to return the kick and that strategy worked brilliantly.
Arizona’s Andre Ellington returned the kick to only the 17-yard-line, and a holding penalty pushed the Cardinals back to their own 8-yard-line to begin the drive.
“Certainly, we had an opportunity to kick it out of the end zone on the last kickoff, but with a good field goal kicker, a good offense, good quarterback, we try to put them on as long a field as we could,” Belichick said, according to Pro Football Talk. “That was a great situational play and we needed it at that time.”
It worked out beautifully. The Cardinals managed to drive the ball down to New England’s 29-yard-line, but it wasn’t close enough as the Cardinals botched the game-winning, 47-yard field goal attempt.
It’s uncertain whether the extra nine yards would have made Chandler Catanzaro’s attempt a sure bet to go through the uprights. The point is, the Patriots proved the rule can be exploited from a strategical standpoint.
The question will be whether teams continue to take the risk in allowing a long return to earn a slight advantage in field position. Essentially, any return that doesn’t get past the 25-yard-line is a win for the kicking team. The coverage team also doesn’t have as much room to run now that kickoffs start at the 35-yard-line.
How coaches weigh the pros and cons of that risk will determine how successful the rule actually is in reducing injuries.