May 25, 2023 - Sports

NFL kickoff returns are fading away

Data: Pro Football Reference; Chart: Axios Visuals

Less than 20 years ago, 95% of National Football League kickoffs were returned. Next season, that number is projected to be 31%.

State of play: Kickoff returns have been trending down for years as a result of rule changes designed to make football safer. The latest change, announced this week, will send them even closer to extinction.

Driving the news: NFL owners on Tuesday approved a rule change wherein a kickoff that is fair caught anywhere behind the 25-yard line will get placed on the 25. In the past, it would get placed at the spot of the fair catch (and thus, almost never happened), and kickoffs were only placed at the 25 on a touchback.

  • The impetus for the change was a surge in concussions on kickoff returns, with nearly twice as many last year (19) as there were in 2020 (10).
  • The league estimates that this new rule will decrease the rate of kickoff returns from 38% to 31% and thus reduce concussion rates on those plays by 15%.

The backdrop: The 95% return rate in 2005 was uniquely high, but it was still 80% in 2010 when the league made its biggest recent rule change, moving kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. The ensuing increase in touchbacks saw the return rate drop to 54%.

  • It's hovered between 36-42% since 2015 after two additional rule changes were made, moving the spot of a touchback up five yards to incentivize taking them and eliminating running starts for the kicking team to reduce high-impact collisions.
  • But the rate was up slightly the last two years compared to the previous three due to the new trend of "pop-up" kicks, which teams use to pin their opponents down near the goal line rather than blast it into the end zone for a touchback.
  • Those are the plays the NFL attributes the concussion surge to, and thus the plays it hopes to eliminate with this rule.

What they're saying: "The data is very clear about the higher rate of injury on that play," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN. "This was a step that we think was appropriate to address that."

Yes, but: The data may be misleading, Sports Illustrated notes. 99.3% of kickoffs last season were concussion-free and 11 of the 19 concussions on kickoffs happened when a returner took the ball out of the end zone — a play unaffected by the new rule.

  • Special teams coordinators "unanimously opposed the change," according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.
  • Some coaches fear it will have the opposite effect as intended, yielding a new strategy of squib kicks that cause more chaotic, high-risk plays.

The intrigue: The new kickoff rule — which is the same as the one the NCAA implemented in 2018 — is only for this season, after which it will be reassessed. If it doesn't go as planned, there are two other existing options the league could explore instead.

  • The United States Football League kicks off from the 25-yard line, and that extra space "has produced really solid results from an injury standpoint," per SI.
  • The XFL kicks off from the 30, with the rest of the kicking team lining up five yards away from the return team. Drastically reducing the space between them limits dangerous collisions.

The big picture: Kickoffs are as old as football itself, but they could eventually become a thing of the past. "We want to keep it in the game," NFL Competition Committee chair Rich McKay said this week. "[But] I don't know that we know we can keep it in the game."

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