The NFL’s most recent tweak to the kickoff is not getting its intended result.
In Nick Groke’s Denver Post story about how the Broncos are adjusting to the new kickoff rules, he reveals that kickoff returns are up to 2.83 per game from 2.11 per game last season. If this pace continues the NFL is on pace for 370 returns this season.
The new rule applies to touchbacks. The offense now gets the ball at the 25-yard line as opposed to the 20-yard line. In the story, Groke says kickers are now making an effort to not kick the ball into the end zone to save those five yards of field position.
Rule changes to the kickoffs began in 2011 after kickoffs were declared the most dangerous play in football. In response, the NFL moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. In the first season only 53 percent of kicks were returned, down from 80 percent only the year before. The percentage has decreased in each of the following seasons.
In an NFL.com article Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said teams will go to a mortar kick, a low kick meant to land inside of the five-yard line.
“Special teams coaches in the league say there is a 3 percent difference between the 25-yard line and the 20-yard line in scoring,” Koetter said. “So teams that can do it and have a kicker that can do it will be tempted to mortar kick it and try to go down and cover.”
It’s only two weeks into the preseason, but the league probably went the wrong direction with its kickoff rule. The only thing coaches value more than not committing turnovers is field position. Whether a returner is more inclined to take a knee in the end zone or not can only go so far. If a play is called to keep the ball in the field of play then the returner will have participate in the play. With the end result being an increase in the very thing the NFL is trying to reduce.