The NFL has been looking for alternatives to the kickoff because it is the sport’s most dangerous play. Nevermind that eliminating kickoffs or restructuring its framework doesn’t make football a safe sport, just a very, very slightly less dangerous one. Still, it’s Roger Goodell PR at its finest, making a change with an incredibly small impact for the facade of player safety.
Except this new idea, one originally proposed by Tampa Bay Bucs coach Greg Schiano (who, by the way, is very big on player safety), is quirky.
Here’s TIME with the explanation:
“TIME sat in on meeting between Goodell and Rich McKay, head of the NFL’s powerful competition committee. Goodell brought up a proposal promoted by Greg Schiano, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: after a touchdown or field goal, instead of kicking off, a team would get the ball on its own 30-yard line, where it’s fourth and 15. The options are either to go for it and try to retain possession, or punt.”
First, let’s simply address the idea that punt returns are safer than kickoff returns (an impossible thing to calculate, really). While there might be more head-on collisions during a kickoff, the recent rule change that moved the kickoff up to the 30-yard line eliminated some of that risk. In 2010, 16.4% of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. In 2011, after the change, that numbered jumped to 43.5%. Furthermore, punts, unlike kickoffs, have the added danger of the blindside block. At the very least, players on kickoffs can see potential danger in front of them, whereas special teamers looking to make a name for themselves love nothing better than to launch their bodies full-speed into an unsuspecting defender.
And then there’s the practical matter of things, how the rule will affect game strategy and play. We can practically expect that teams will always punt on 4th and 15 from their own 30 – mostly because coaches are historically timid in their 4th down decision-making. Not that the punt isn’t the right play, anyway. But what the rule change does, in effect, is eliminate a surprise variance – the surprise onside kick play. According to Brian Burke of Advanced NFL stats, 60% of surprise onside kicks are recovered, and are well worth the risk according to expected points value. Except under these new rules, there will be a clear back and forth possession flow, with little chance of interruption.
In terms of field position, this has a huge impact. In 2011, after the rule change was made, the average starting field position on kickoffs was the 22.1 yard line. The drop from the 26.8 in 2010 is clearly both a result in the increase in kneel downs and longer return distance – returners were taking the ball out form deep in the end zone. Meanwhile, the best NFL punters kick the ball an average total distance of 50 yards – which means punt returners on what used to be kickoff plays would be receiving the ball at the 20 yard line, at worst. Therefore, if returners call for a fair catch, the 20 is most likely the worst starting field position. However, we can expect that most 50-yard punts are not fair caught due to the extra distance special team defenders must run. Though the average punt return varies from league-leading Buffalo (16.0 yards) to Chicago (3.9), the starting field position will be invariably moved up beyond the 20 – and probably beyond the 22.4 yard line – which likely means more points scored per game.