When the NFL changed the touchback rule so that kickoffs into the end zone are brought out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20, the idea was to incentivize returners to keep the ball in the end zone, and hopefully reduce injuries on kickoff returns.
For returners, those extra five yards are a big enough bonus that the smart move is to stay in the end zone. Unfortunately, too few returners have gotten the message.
NFL kickoff returners continue to take the ball out of the end zone, even though statistically speaking they’re better off taking a knee: According to Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com, there have been 163 kickoffs taken out of the end zone this season, and only 40 of them, or 24.5 percent, have been returned past the 25-yard line. The average line of scrimmage after kickoffs taken out of the end zone is the 23.2-yard line, meaning returners cost their teams about two yards, on average, each time they take the ball out.
And that includes all kickoffs into the end zone, even those when the returner is just a step behind the goal line when he fields the ball. The decision to take the ball out is even worse when the ball is kicked deep into the end zone: On kicks that go at least five yards into the end zone, the average return goes to the 21.5-yard line. Only 22.5 percent of those kicks are returned past the 25.
It gets even worse when you consider that six kickoff returns have been fumbled this season, a risk to bringing the ball out of the end zone that doesn’t exist if a returner keeps the ball in the end zone.
So why have returners taken the ball out of the end zone 160 times this season? Because returners still think they can take one to the house. But that’s exceedingly rare: On Sunday in Jacksonville, when Rams returner Pharoh Cooper fielded the opening kickoff three yards deep in the end zone and ran it 103 yards for a touchdown, that was the only time all season a kickoff into the end zone had been returned for a touchdown.
Perhaps if you have a return man like Cooper, who’s averaging 31.7 yards a return this year, letting him take a kick out of the end zone is a wise move. But the vast majority of NFL coaches should be telling their returners to stay put. Most of the time, taking a kickoff out of the end zone is a mistake.