We know directional punting is a skill, and often a valuable one. But might we soon see the rise of the directional kicker? The NFL's Competition Committee is proposing moving the kickoff to the 35-yard-line, and having touchbacks start from their 25. They say it's for safety, and it would probably help, but it could also have an intriguing effect on kickoff strategy.
Because so many players are injured on kickoffs, the committee specifically made some recommendations. No more wedge blocks, no more running starts for coverage teams, and the yard line changes. The thought: it's easier for the kicker to boot it out of the end zone, and it's more rewarding for the receiver to kneel. More touchbacks, less returns, less injuries.
But that logic doesn't take into account one thing: while it's easier for the kicker to force a touchback, it's no longer advantageous.
Last year, the math was simple (and we're going to simplify it further.) Every team's average non-touchback starting field position was almost invariably between the 25 and the 30. It made sense for the kicker to boot is as far and as straight as he could, because a touchback, and the opposing team starting at their 20, was better than allowing for the average return.
But the math has changed. Kicking from five yards farther downfield would put the expected average return well shy of the 25-yard-line: the place opponents would get it from on a touchback. So while the returner has incentive to kneel, the kicker has incentive to force a return.
This could present a new option for kickers — keeping it out of the end zone. Whether this means higher arcs, low line drives, or targeting sides of the field, who knows. But we know it's important. How important?
Here's some fairly advanced dissection of the math behind kickoffs, but for our purposes, there's an attempt to quantify the benefit of forcing your opponent into worse field position. In their example, a six-yard difference in field position adds a 0.14 probability of stopping a scoring drive. Over the course of the season: one or two wins.