The NFL reduced kickoff returns by 1.8 percentage points in 2016, a modest impact for its one-year rule experiment to improve player safety by encouraging more touchbacks.
Teams returned 39.3 percent of kickoffs during the just-completed regular season, down from 41.1 in 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The touchback rate was 57.6 percent, up from 56 percent last season.
The NFL's competition committee considers the kickoff return to be the most dangerous play in football. After an increase in concussions last season, it moved to reduce the total number of returns, and thus the risk of injury, by shifting the touchback to the 25-yard line. In total, there were 45 fewer returns in 2016 compared to 2015 in almost the exact same number of kickoffs. Concussion data is not yet available.
The committee is expected to review the final results and discuss future options next month. Because of the nature of the rule, NFL owners will need to either approve it as a permanent change or pursue other ideas. The earliest a vote would take place is during the March 26-29 annual league meetings.
Moving the touchback to the 25-yard line generated strong opposition from coaches, whom the committee hoped would be incentivized to pursue more touchbacks because of better field position. Instead, many of them increased their use of short "mortar" kicks that would force returns by leaving the ball short of the goal line. The percentage of kickoffs into the end zone dropped this season to 76.9 percent from 83.5 percent in 2015. Even with that approach, however, teams still lost ground in field position. The average drive start after a kickoff was the 24.8-yard line, up from the 21.6-yard line in 2015.
Coaches objected in other ways as well. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, for example, disputed last week that touchbacks would lead to safer outcomes. The play remains full-speed with the ball in the air, and Belichick noted a Week 16 concussion suffered by Denver Broncos cornerback Kayvon Webster on a touchback as an example.
"We saw a pretty big concussed play with a touchback," Belichick said. "Part of the touchback is 'We think everybody is really not playing at the same speed because we think it's a touchback, it's going to be no play.' But as a coverage team, you don't know for sure the guy isn't coming out or not, so you're playing it at full speed. So some of the concussions and some of the injuries look to me like they come on touchbacks."
It's possible that the NFL will consider an alternative proposed this past spring by a group of special-teams coaches during a conference call with senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino. The idea would require an alignment similar to punts and thus limit the number of high-speed collisions. It is expected to be used in The Spring League, an independent developmental league scheduled to play in April at The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.