23rd March 2011
Yesterday, 26 of the league's 32 owners voted to change the NFL's kickoff rules, moving the placement of the ball from the 30- to the 35-yard line.
[Leon] Washington and others around the league said the change, made to address player-safety issues, would breed more touchbacks and substantially impact field position, likely leading to less scoring.
"There just won't be as many returns, and I think it's going to affect things like scoring, and there'll be more of an emphasis on directional kicking ...," Cincinnati Bengals special-teams coach Darrin Simmons told his team's official website. "There are going to be more touchbacks and more 80-yard drives, and scoring drops sharply because there are a lot more scoring drives of 70 yards than drives over 80."
Touchbacks will continue to be brought out to the 20, and teams still will be allowed to use the two-man blocking wedge.
Fan reaction has been mostly negative. Cries about player safety from fans discussing an 18-game schedule have turned into cries about "ruining the game" when it comes to minimizing special teams. In reality, most of these complaints are due to a general resistance to change, with whatever the flavor du jour serving as a comfortable red herring.
But what about the claim that this will decrease scoring? Nate Dunleavy agrees:
A league-wide reduction in offense. Because even the worst special teams units generally start on the good side of the 20 after kickoffs (I believe Indy started around the 22), an increase in touchbacks will move average starting field position backwards for all NFL teams. Teams with good return games will be hurt more than teams with bad return games, but all teams should see their average starting field position go backwards, even Indy. There is a very strong relationship between starting field position and the points a team can expect to score. The cumulative effect of dozens of extra touchbacks will be a reduction in scoring. As noted, the Colts should feel this pinch far less than most teams, as it will likely affect their starting field position after kickoffs by less than a yard or so.
I'm not so sure I agree with Nate; while teams receiving a kickoff may be less likely to score, by definition, teams kicking off will be more likely to score next. In reality, this rule change is sure to have little actual impact on scoring, but that doesn't mean we can't engage in a quick thought exercise. Let's take this rule change to the extreme: suppose instead of teams kicking off from the 30-yard line, from now on the opposing team gets possession of the ball at their own 7-yard line. How would that impact play?
At the start of every half, and following every touchdown and field goal, instead of getting a chance to receive and return a kickoff, a team is placed in the shadow of their own goal-posts. How would this impact scoring? It's obvious that it would make scoring more difficult for the "receiving" team. However, it would make scoring less difficult for the "kicking" team. How do those elements balance out?
We assume that following a kickoff, a team will start its drive at, on average, the 27-yard line. According to David Romer, that is worth 0.7 points to the offensive team. Having the ball at your own 7-yard line is worth 0.6 points to the defensive team. In that case, the team on offense is less likely to score than its opponent. For the offense, this hypothetical rule change would cost it 1.3 points following each kickoff compared to where things stand today.
Now, scoring a touchdown is worth 6.3 points, on average. Under this scenario, a touchdown is worth 7.6 points. Considering that last season there were 9.6 kickoffs per game, this would be a serious change to the way the game is played. However, does that *necessarily* mean less scoring? Couldn't it mean even more scoring? Or would it be a zero-sum game, where if one team scores less the other scores more?
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