One of the major rule changes implemented for the 2016 season involves moving touchbacks up from the 20-yard-line to the 25-yard-line. The change comes in an attempt to mitigate the dangers involved with one of the game’s most perilous plays. Some even think it’s the beginning of an attempt to eliminate kickoffs entirely.
Not everyone agrees that this rule will reduce kickoff returns, however. In fact, some coaches believe the new rule might lead to more returns.
“I’m not a rule maker but I don’t see this staying in real long,” Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert. “I think it’s going to start causing a lot of strategy things, as far as pop-up kicks, and I don’t think they’re going to get achieved what they thought they were going to get achieved with it.”
It makes sense in a strategic and somewhat cryptic way. Coaches might opt to risk a long return than forfeit 25 yards. It will be interesting to see the difference in results between drives that start at the 25-yard-line and drives that begin at the spot of the return.
It’s also important to note that busting long returns has become harder than ever, especially after the league moved kickoffs to the 35-yard-line in 2011. Only Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson averaged more than 30 yards per return among players who returned at least 20 kicks. There were only seven kickoff return touchdowns last season, two of which were housed by Patterson.
The preseason might be a good time to experiment with this. If a kickoff is returned short of the 25-yard-line, it’s essentially a win for the kickoff team. If this happens more often than not, it’s safe to say coaches league-wide will opt to take a chance, kick it short and allow a return. The NFL is a copy-cat league after all.
Of course, it could be argued that this amendment won’t have much of an effect on player safety. The game has become faster and stronger than ever before. Collisions and ensuing injuries are an inevitable consequence. So the cause and effect of this rule change will likely involve a ton of gray area, but that won’t be determined conclusively until the season wraps up.