Home > NFL > NFL Kickoff Rule Modification Shouldn’t Hurt Returners, but Blows Up Kicker Market

NFL Kickoff Rule Modification Shouldn’t Hurt Returners, but Blows Up Kicker Market

When the NFL free agency period inevitably hits in the next week or two, about a third of the league’s kickers are going to be unrestricted free agents.  In a normal year, this wouldn’t be that cool.  Kickers aren’t particularly exciting players, and while they have a large effect on game outcomes and scoring environments in general, a good kicker often gets confused with a clutch kicker, and its just not clear how to evaluate stable skills for kickers.

One of the tried and true stable kicker skills is kickoff distance.  If nothing else, you could just select the kicker with the biggest leg and reap the special teams value.  Overall, a kicker who hits a low FG percentage is going to have a net negative effect on his team, even if he’s 2010 Billy Cundiff on kickoffs, but if anyone has developed a system for predicting FG percentage performance, I haven’t read their work, and they’re probably working for an NFL team.

But now, the NFL will kick off from the 35 yard line instead of the 30.  And the instant reaction to this rule, that I recall, was, “wow, career kick returners are not going to be able to have the same effect in a game where teams kick off from the 35.”  And my thought on this was that it missed the point.

If you view everything through the prism of compiling statistics, yes, kick return average, average starting field position, and total kick return touchdowns are going to be way down across the league.  Total touchbacks will be way, way up.  But the narrative that Devin Hester, Brandon Banks, and Josh Cribbs will no longer be able to have an impact on special teams isn’t the case at all.  When evaluating the effect of the top 3% of returners and their value to franchises, the concept we are dealing with is statistical variance: value over average.  The fact that the average return won’t go for as many yards, isn’t as likely to go for a touchdown, and isn’t likely to leave the end zone in general is all true, but what remains to be seen is what this will do to the top returners.

It may do nothing to the top returners except drop the expected level of performance, making these players: Cribbs, Hester, Banks, all the more devastating because they’re in rarefied air as players who can add value with the return.  Or not.  Maybe they drift towards league average and lose any value they might have added.  Either way, when we’re projecting the kind of seasons they will have, we’re dealing with statistical variance.  Not aggregate value.  The focus on the return game — which has for whatever reason ignored that punt returns will occur in the same environment it always has — is a case of misguided focus.

The guys who are really hurt by the rule change are the only guys on the kickoff team who don’t benefit from the new rule change: the kickers.  Because now with the kickoff line moved forward, it sure seems like the expectation for kickers is that every kickoff should land a couple of yards in the end zone, and force a touchback (because remember, the coverage teams are also starting five yards closer.  This is best conceptualized as “double counting.”  Five yards further and five yards sooner).

Billy Cundiff is a free agent, coming off one of the greatest kickoff seasons of all time.  I could make a very legitimate argument that Cundiff’s ability to punch the ball from the 35 yardline out the back of the end zone with regularity now offers nothing to teams.  Cundiff may not even get signed in the NFL this year.  Now, for him specifically, he’s been around that block before of needing to recreate himself as a kicker.  But we could be arriving at an NFL where there are only two “skills” a kicker can offer beyond generally being reliable on placekicks:

  1. The ability to confidently hit 60+ yarders at the end of halves with regularity (the Sebastian Janikowski model)
  2. The ability to execute the onside kick
That could be it.  And when you put it in perspective, it doesn’t look like return units are going to be hurt at all by this rule change.  And this is probably a good rule.  There will be improved player safety from fewer high-risk collisions on special teams.  And the only losers in terms of financials, are the NFL kickers who weren’t dominating the market to begin with.  But the kickers are big losers here.  And not enough writers or television commentators are putting the focus in the right place on this rule change.

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