The NFL has been trying to reduce kickoff returns for several years. It’s working.
The league office, which has often said that more serious injuries are suffered on kickoff returns than on any other type of play, has implemented rules attempting to encourage touchbacks and discourage returns, and those rules are clearly having their desired effect: Kickoff returns have declined for five straight years.
Through five weeks this season, NFL teams are averaging just 1.7 kickoff returns per game. That makes 2017 the fifth consecutive season that kickoff returns are down: In 2016, teams averaged 2.0 returns per game. In 2015 it was 2.1. In 2014 it was 2.4. In 2013 it was 2.5. And in 2012 it was 2.7. Over the course of five years, the number of kickoff returns has gradually declined to the point where there’s one fewer return per team per game.
If you go back further, the reduction in kickoff returns is even more stark: Ten years ago, in 2007, NFL teams averaged 4.1 kickoff returns per game.
The biggest reason is the rule change that puts the touchback to the 25-yard line, instead of the 20. That incentivizes returners to keep the ball in the end zone, rather than running it out, and that’s what teams are increasingly deciding to do.
Some teams are always satisfied to keep the ball in the end zone. The Packers, incredibly, have returned just one kickoff all season.
One obvious result of the reduction in kickoff returns is a reduction in one of the most exciting plays in football, the kickoff return touchdown. There still hasn’t been a single kickoff returned for a touchdown all season. Last year there were seven kickoffs returned for touchdowns. Ten years ago there were 25 kickoffs returned for touchdowns.
So the league is getting its wish with fewer kickoff returns. But in the process, the game is getting a little less exciting.