I do not like to say I told you so (I love to say it), but all my haters and doubters (there were none) can eat every last speck of my shit.
This year, in an attempt to cut down on the number of kickoff returns for player safety purposes—an inordinate amount of injuries occur in full-speed collisions on returns—NFL owners voted to place the ball on the 25 after touchbacks, instead of on the 20. That was to incentivize returners to take a knee rather than run a ball out of the end zone, but it seemed pretty obvious that it also incentivized kickers to try to place their kicks short of the end zone and force returns. That’s exactly what’s happening.
Through two games this season, 37.3 percent of kickoffs have been returned. That’s an increase from the 30.1 percent of kickoffs returned through the first two games in 2015.
Small sample size, sure, but many coaches, including John Harbaugh, Hue Jackson, Jay Gruden, Andy Reid, and Mike McCarthy, have mused on the newly added value in kicking shy of the end zone. It’s not crazy to think they’re instructing their kickers to do so.
Bill Belichick has said as much. In Week 1, giving the ball back to the Cardinals with four minutes left for a drive in which they would need just a field goal to win, Stephen Gostkowski put the ball at the 3, from where Andre Ellington could only return it to the 17. That’s eight yards difference, and as Belichick noted afterward, “those yards showed up at the other end of the field.” The Cardinals missed a 47-yard field goal.
“Certainly, we had an opportunity to kick it out of the end zone on the last kickoff, but with a good field goal kicker, a good offense, good quarterback, we try to put them on as long a field as we could,” Belichick said. “That was a great situational play and we needed it at that time.”
The touchback tweak is a one-year experiment, and if it’s not actually reducing kickoff returns, you have to figure it won’t stick around. But between this and the longer extra points, I’m intrigued by the idea of an NFL where the skill of a kicker matters more than ever before.