Why NFL playoff teams need to kneel for the touchback whenever possible

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Along with the emphasis on excessive celebrations and unsportsmanlike conduct, the most embarrassing rule change in the NFL the past year has no doubt been the touchback rule. During the off-season, the league moved the touchback line from the 20-yard line up to the 25, thinking more teams would take advantage of the ability to get the ball closer to the end zone by taking a knee.

Of course, it backfired. The NFL’s efforts to curb high-speed, high-impact plays that could lead to injury has led to kickers placing more balls in front of the goal line and betting the team can stop a returner shy of the 25. On top of that, the percentage of kickoffs returned from the end zone that make it to the touchback line has been slashed in half—before the rule change, a team had nearly a 60% chance of reaching the touchback line, and in 2016, that stat dropped to less than 30%.

With the help of my college friend and stat geek/coder Kevin Hogan, we crunched NFL kickoff data (via NFL.com’s play-by-play stats) from 2014 to the last week of the 2016 regular season to see how the rule has impacted kickoff returns this season, and what the first postseason with this new rule could look like.

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Each regular season saw about 2,550 kickoffs. In 2014, 808 kicks (38.1% of all kicks that traveled past the goal line) were brought out of the end zone with 464 returns (57.43%) getting to or past the 20-yard line. In 2015, 724 kicks (32.9% of all kicks that traveled past the goal line) were brought out with 423 kicks (58.43%) making it to the touchback line or past it.

But with the rule change this season, both the number of touchbacks and the percentage of returns that made it to the touchback line have drastically fallen. An analysis of kickoff data from the 2016 NFL regular season shows that 439 kicks (22.4% of all kicks that traveled past the goal line) were brought out with 127 kicks (28.9%) getting to or past the new touchback line. 

Because the difficulty of getting to the touchback line has doubled, playoff teams should strongly consider taking a knee when possible.

In previous seasons, the behavior and success rates of NFL kickoff return teams have been mostly congruous from the regular season to the postseason. But this season’s touchback change has had a drastic impact on the numbers, and as the first postseason in NFL history under this new rule kicks off this week, its effect on the postseason is murky.

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On the surface—and in a rather conservative league—it would seem that if a team is fortunate enough to receive a kickoff in the end zone, they would take a knee rather than run it out, which this season led to nearly 71% of the returns coming short of the 25-yard-line.

But naturally, more factors are in play this postseason than simply these raw statistics. Chief among them is the win-or-go-home factor of the playoffs, which would very well alter the aggressiveness of coaches and players in January compared to October.

The one statistic that did increase this season was the number of kicks short of the end zone. Of all the kickoffs in 2016, 24.4% of them came up short of the goal line compared to just 14.5% in 2015.

“No one wants to give up those 25 yards,” said Kansas City special teams coordinator Dave Toub at the beginning of the season about kickoffs. “To me, that’s like giving up.”

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Not every playoff team is made equally. Five of the 12 playoff teams brought out fewer than 10 kicks that went into the end zone this past season with a combined success rate of getting to or past the 25-yard-line of 30.7%. Those teams—Dallas, Atlanta, Green Bay, New England and Oakland—all have (or in Oakland’s case, had) prolific quarterbacks and offenses.

Of the dozen teams, Kansas City had the third-worst success rate of getting to the 25. Only 19% of the Chiefs’ end-zone returns (four out of 21) got to or past the touchback line. But the Chiefs also have one of, if not the, most explosive returner in football in Tyreek Hill. With a competent offense, Kansas City has weighed Hill’s return abilities (one kickoff touchdown and one called back with his 4.25 speed) over the risk of coming up short of the 25.

Kickoff defense should also be considered. The Giants have seen 10 of their end-zone kicks returned, but they’ve allowed just one to reach at least the 25. Conversely, the Dolphins have seen 12 end-zone kickoffs returned and allowed five to get to the touchback line or past it.

The added elements in a playoff game put so much into teams’ kickoff and return decisions. A cold night would make the ball more difficult to fly out of the end zone, and a wet game could make a return riskier. Of the top three seeds in both conferences, only Atlanta and Dallas play indoors while New England, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle could all reasonably expect adverse kicking/returning conditions.

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Or take Saturday’s wild-card match between Oakland and Houston. Of the 12 kickoffs Houston brought out of the end zone this year, only two got at least to the 25. Oakland also got two there out of nine tries. The Raiders are on a third-string quarterback while the Texans will start Brock Osweiler, who has now twice been benched before the postseason due to poor play.

In a game of field position, a team could decide to take the 25 yards if given to them. But if their offense is stuck in quicksand, might a team opt for a home-run play and risk backing up a struggling quarterback against his own goal line?

The league and its competition committee will evaluate the touchback rule this offseason, and it’s possible the NFL will revert the touchback line to the 20 in 2017. But it’s here for at least 11 postseason games, and there’s no telling how teams are going to play it.

Kickoff return success rates of playoff teams

Percent of kicks returned from the end zone that went to at least the 25-yard line

Via Silk

Kickoff defense of playoff teams

Percent of kicks returned from the end zone that were stopped shy of the 25-yard line

Via Silk

Source: NFL.com 

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