Kickoff rule change has big effect on NFL

Before the NFL season, one of the rule changes that received the most discussion was how moving kickoffs up five yards to the 35-yard line would affect the return game.

Kickoff Returns Last 5 Seasons

As expected, the raw number of kickoff returns and kickoff returns per game was significantly down from previous years. 1,374 kickoffs (5.4 per game) were returned in 2011, compared to 2,033 (7.9 per game) in 2010.

Expressed as a percentage, 53.4 percent of kickoffs were returned this season, a huge drop from 80.1 percent in 2010.

In a related note, touchbacks skyrocketed to 43.5 percent this season, more than two and a half times last year’s rate of 16.4 percent.

Did the rule change deprive fans of excitement? From a numbers standpoint, the answer is yes. Nine kickoffs were returned for a touchdown in 2011, compared to 23 in 2010.

The 2011 rate of 153 kickoff returns per touchdown was close to double the rate of 88 per touchdown in 2010. But it was actually better than the rate of 163 returns per touchdown from 2008.

Many returners appeared to be taking back kicks from deeper in the end zone, which likely explains the additional yard and a half per return this year, 23.8 yards compared to 22.3 in 2010.

Avg Starting Field Position
After Kickoff

The change becomes glaringly obvious when looking at average starting field position. The average drive after a kickoff started just past the 22-yard line, down almost five yards from the previous year.

With each team averaging 189 possessions this season, that adds up to an additional 888 possible yards per team, which may account for part of the offensive boom in 2011.