NFL gets its wish, kickoff returns are down

Getty Images

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.

29 responses to “NFL gets its wish, kickoff returns are down

  1. Does anyone have an injury stat on kickoffs? Is it more dangerous in regards to other plays? AS a fan – i sure miss it. Might as well just start at the 20 and skip the play. The game is getting dull.

  2. The bigger story IMO is how the latest CBA seemingly has had zero net benefit to serious injury during the season whilst reducing tackling quality across the league… that makes the game a LOT less-exciting than the kickoff return issue, which while real isn’t what sours the game for me.

  3. Kickoff returns are fun to watch. If they are too dangerous then replace them with a punt that results in similar field position. Don’t make the game less interesting, make it better or safer.
    If you carry it to its logical extreme, all kickoffs are potentially dangerous so remove them and start on the 25.
    Are punts too dangerous? Give the other team the ball 40 yards back, and on the 10 if it would put them in the end zone.
    Sounds like a bad idea to me.

  4. The Packers have had 1 kickoff return touchdown since 2011. Randall Cobb in 2011 vs. New Orleans 108 yards. They went 10 years before that with no kickoff return touchdowns. 28 kickoff returns is the club record for fewest in a season. Set in 1941 and 1943. 381 yards in 1940 over an 11 game season is the club record for fewest kickoff return yards in a season. Those will all be broken at this pace.

  5. Yeah NFL, take one of the most exciting plays out of the game. It used to be riveting if your team was down towards the end of the game and your team was receiving the kickoff with the potential of a run back. It’s really making me watch the games less and less. It’s sad as a fan.

  6. You can’t complain about concussions, then turn around and complain about missing the one play that led to more concussions than any other.

  7. With the move of touchbacks out to the 25 yard line, I’m surprised more teams aren’t purposely kicking the ball short of the goal line to get better field position.

  8. cabosan1978 says:
    October 12, 2017 at 9:44 am

    Does anyone have an injury stat on kickoffs? Is it more dangerous in regards to other plays? AS a fan – i sure miss it. Might as well just start at the 20 and skip the play. The game is getting dull.

    What he said. Loved it when Seattle brought in Leon Washington- exciting! And now we have Tyler Lockett who is also explosive and fun to watch. But when no one returns… meh. Not fun to watch.

    The NFL may have stats for their stance, but I find it hard to believe that kickoffs are worse than any given play where anything can go wrong. Seems like it’s playing with stats in order to make things seems safer.

    I’m all for more player safety! I’m just not convinced by the NFL’s argument so far (not that my opinion matters).

  9. Let’s change it up. Allow up to a 5-yard forward lateral rule and guys won’t come gunning full bore for fear of a short pass over their heads. Kind of like a middle screen. And it’ll add some excitement and increase creativity and buzz. Kind of like that Beats 2-point conversion play.

  10. Strategically it makes sense to kick-off ‘high’ and have the ball come down on or around the goal line, thereby almost forcing the receiver to run the ball out. While I don’t know what the actual percentages are, as many times as I’ve watched Gostkowski kick these, the vast majority of players try to run these out and few are successful at reaching the 25.

  11. If you return a kickoff now, almost every possible result is bad. You probably won’t get it out to the 25-yard line. You might fumble. Somebody might get hurt. The other team might make a great play and get their team fired up. It’s gotten to the point that I’m relieved if my team’s returner takes a knee.

  12. NFL kickers are able to typically kick it through the end zone. Why don’t they take 25 yards of distance off, add some air time, and try to drop it at about the 15. Wouldn’t the opposition be forced to fair catch almost every single one of these kicks?

  13. The next move is to bring punts out to the 25 as well, so that teams that punt in the ‘dead zone’ of the 35-45 are more incentivized to go for it. Punt on 4th and 4 from the 40 and it goes in the end zone, you’ve gained 15 yards of field position. Teams going for it more on 4th down would add excitement to the game. And, if they don’t get it, the other team starts at the 40 and has a better chance at points. Win-win.

  14. lutazanderman says: Only thing worse than commercial, kickoff, commercial? Commercial, touchback, commercial. Yeah just a little less exciting.

    Your whining is so last year – literally. If you actually paid attention, the NFL eliminated the commercial break after kickoff.

  15. gauchosporlife says: It’s really making me watch the games less and less. It’s sad as a fan.
    Yes, because the 150 plays when the offense and defense are on the field are so boring to watch. It’s clear most fans only pay attention during punts and kickoffs. Only if the whole game was all punts/kickoffs, people would watch the games more and more – said no one ever.

  16. The NFL gets it’s wish, consumer interest in watching breaks between scores is WAY down, since watching kickoffs no longer matters. And now they can proceed toward eliminating kickoffs all together, which will further erode consumer interest in watching any games at all.

  17. sheetolay says:
    October 12, 2017 at 11:17 am
    Anh.Busch, Verizon, Pepsi, Apple, Ford, Papa Johns all say don’t mess with our kick-offs.

    Exactly! So pathetic when you watch a sunday or monday night game in particular..Worthless touchback, Al Michaels – back after this! 5 minutes later – Games resumes. TD – commercials, Extra point – commercials. The anthem protest was the straw that broke the camels back when you look at these terrible refs, seemingly fixed games, nonsense rules and ticky tack fouls. coupled with perspective lacking millionaires and billionaires trying to shovel this crap down our throats. All about college football baw

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!