It’s a touch . . . back?

During the NFL owners’ meetings last March, the league decided to make a seemingly innocuous change to the kickoff for the 2011 season. The kickoff would be held at the kicking team’s 35-yard line, barring a penalty, instead of the 30-yard line, which was the spot of the kickoff since 1994.

It would seem counter-intuitive to move the kickoff ahead five yards when you consider that kickers’ legs are stronger than ever. In fact, Billy Cundiff of the Baltimore Ravens broke the NFL record for most touchbacks in a season with 40 in 2010-11. The NFL maintains the changes were made to reduce injuries, but it did not foresee the effect five yards would have.

And boy, what a difference it made.

Last season, 16.4 per cent of all kickoffs in the NFL were ruled to be touchbacks. After the first week this season, that rate has nearly tripled to 48.8 per cent. In other words, almost half of all kickoffs in the NFL this season may be unreturnable and that is bad news for kick returners and fans.

The kickoff return may be the most exciting aspect of football. Fans love it and many NFL players have made returning kickoffs their living; Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears returned the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown. Fewer kick returns could mean fewer players like him and more time for TV viewers to change the channel after a score.

Hester, during a radio interview on Chicago ESPN 1000, made his feelings known.

“[The NFL is] going too far. They’re changing the whole fun of the game. Fans come out to see, especially to Chicago, to see returns. That’s one of the key aspects to our team. Fans [like] our big returns, and taking that out of the game makes for a lesser game.”

Because of the increase of touchbacks, field position will be more advantageous to defensive teams and may result in decreased scoring. According to the statistics blog, Advanced NFL Stats, the average field position of a return team after a non-touchback kickoff was the return team’s own 32-yard line, twelve yards ahead of where the ball would be spotted after a touchback.

Brian Burke from Advanced NFL Stats writes: “It’s one more first down the offence will need to either score a TD or get into FG range. The average first down conversion rate in the NFL is 67 per cent, so a touchback turns a TD drive into a FG drive or a FG drive into a punt 33 per cent of the time.”

Whether this new rate of touchbacks will be the new norm, it doesn’t seem to have an effect on kickoff returns so far. There were three kickoffs returned for touchdowns in the first week of the season, all of them returned from the end zone. The NFL has historically been a league that adopts change, and this instance should be no different.