In 1996, a young Adam Vinatieri entered the NFL as a kicker for the New England Patriots. Vinatieri is as close to a legendary field goal kicker as there is, based mostly on his clutch, bad-weather kicking during the heyday of the Patriots' dynasty. But this isn't about field goal kicking. This is about kickoffs and how small rule changes can have huge impacts on NFL seasons.
Vinatieri is slightly overrated in my opinion, and one of the reasons for this is that on his kickoffs he has always been average at best. In his rookie season his kicks resulted in touchbacks on 10.1% of his kicks, which wasn't terrible, but isn't outstanding either. He ranked 14th among kickers in that category that year, but the difference between average and good was substantial. Six kickers managed touchbacks on over 20% of their kicks, and one kicker, the Giants' Brad Daluiso, caused a touchback on 30% of his kicks.
The Patriots were very good in 1996 behind Drew Bledsoe, Curtis Martin, and a bevy of talented wideouts and tight ends, and as a result, Vinatieri kicked off more than any other kicker in the league. Vinatieri was actually not terrible in terms of opponent starting field position, with an average opposing start at the 20.8 yard line, so part of his high return rate may have been strategic. The Patriots may have possessed excellent coverage units, and touchbacks may not have been in their best interest generally, but whatever the cause, the fact is that 90% of his kickoffs were returned.
If we go back in time another three years things look drastically different. 1993 was the last year that the NFL would kick off from the 35 yard line until 2011, and that five yards made a world of difference. The Herculean Brad Daluiso would put the ball through the back of the end zone on 60% of his kicks. Nine kickers would create touchbacks on over 30% of their kicks, and the 14th-ranked kicker of 1993, Pittsburgh's Gary Anderson, managed to keep a solid 25% of his kicks from coming out of the end zone, a substantial increase on Vinatieri's 10.1% mark in 1996. Anderson was almost perfectly average for the time. From 1992-1993 25.3% of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, whereas the period encompassing the rule change from 1994-2010 saw touchbacks plummet to just 11.3%.
The NFL made this change in part because offense had been down, and they wanted to inject a little more excitement into things. The concern over kickoffs causing injuries was not yet as prevalent, and it was an easy call. As injury concerns started to move to the forefront and NFL popularity rose to unprecedented levels, the NFL reversed course and in 2011, moved kickoffs back to the 35. After doing so, touchback numbers shot way up to 45.5%, severely limiting the number of kickoff returns. The 30-yard line period was unique in producing high-volume, dynamic kick returners from the Bears' Devin Hester, to the Chiefs' Dante Hall, and...well, we'll get to that.
Note: credit goes to Football Outsiders for running many of these numbers.
The fact of the matter is that a change of five yards drastically impacted the game for almost 2 decades. Kick return touchdowns in particular took a nosedive after the most recent rule change. 2007 saw a record 25 kick return scores, while 2013 saw just 7. The rate on return touchdowns hasn't changed much, but with so many touchbacks there were fewer opportunities.
The newest change is to move the touchback up from the 20 to the 25 yard-line and conventional wisdom (and Mike McCarthy's statements) indicate that this will be an additional incentive to not return kicks, and that touchbacks will spike even further. It's easy to make this case on a superficial level. According to the same Outsider piece linked to above, under the most recent kicking rules teams typically start from the 22 yard line (or so) after a kickoff. If you can improve on this average by 3 yards by simply taking a knee, why bring the ball out at all? Yes, you won't get the long return, and maybe teams with below average offenses will still look for the occasional boost from special teams, but generally you avoid a play with a high rate of injury, you avoid a potential fumble, and you avoid the possibility of being buried deep in your own territory.
And there's the rub. I think this rule change takes for granted the idea that kickers will continue to boom their kicks into the end zone; after all, the equation has also changed on them. Kickers have always had another option, which is to increase the hang-time (thereby decreasing distance) on their kickoffs and allow their coverage units to get into position. Allowing a return carries some risk though, and the 20 yard line is a perfectly fine place for an offense to be from a defensive perspective. If your coverage broke down, or you didn't get your kick deep enough, that could work against you. But now, the break-even point isn't the 20, and I wonder if that's enough to convince coaches that the risk of attempting an angled, pop-up kick to bury a team inside the 20 is now worth it. If it is, I wonder if we might see average starting field position actually go down rather than up. I wonder if we might see more returns. I think it's entirely possible that this goes the other way.
The NFL is slow to adopt strategy changes, and often slow to respond to changing incentives, so this is complete speculation.
Editor's note: Paul's theory is actually already being backed up. Former NFL kicker Jay Feely had a series of comments on Twitter that indicate that not only does he think this is exactly what will happen under the new rule, but NFL kickers are already planning to kick the ball shorter.
Outside of Pittsburgh teams failed to drastically change the amount that they try for a two-point conversion in 2015 even though, from a pure value perspective, going for two is now (probably) more attractive than kicking a 33-yard PAT. It is entirely possible that teams still keep shooting for touchbacks, but all it takes is one team trying it and being successful to change everything. Wouldn't it be interesting if, instead of having fewer kickoff injuries, and having offenses start most drives from the 25, we instead see an increase in returns and more teams starting from the 18? Starting field position can have a big impact on an offense, and it's entirely possible that this could have a bigger impact than anyone expected.
Let's go back to 1996. I probably do not need to recount Super Bowl XXXI for you, but while the Packers won the game by two touchdowns there is almost universal agreement that Desmond Howard's touchdown was crucial to their victory, and Howard was given the MVP award for it. In that game there was only one touchback, kicked by Green Bay's punter (and kickoff man) Craig Hentrich. On average, Hentrich hit his kicks 70 yards and reached the end zone on three of his 7 kicks. Vinatieri averaged 66.25 yards on his kicks and never once reached the end zone. The kick that Howard returned came down at the 1 yard line. Howard actually didn't return kickoffs for the Packers on a regular basis, and never actually returned a kickoff for a touchdown during the regular season at any point in his 10-year career. He was a dynamic punt returner, and always dangerous with the ball, but his return in that game was actually a bit of an oddity for him. It is interesting to think that, had this game occurred in the 1993 postseason instead of 1996, Howard may not have had the opportunity to return that kick. Vinatieri with another 5 yards probably puts half of those in the end zone, and Howard's chances drastically decrease. Sometimes 5 yards is huge.
And that is how a boring NFL led to a Packers' Super Bowl victory.