Stats review: Vikings conquered the kickoff

Looking for one of the biggest differences from 2011 to 2012? Perhaps the most glaring improvement the Vikings made was when they were kicking off, forcing opponents to drive 80 yards or more the majority of the time.

As part of an ongoing series of Vikings roster breakdowns, Viking Update has begun the laborious task of determining the pros and cons of the Vikings roster. Such a process begins (and possibly ends) with comparing where the Vikings ranked among their NFL brethren last year when they finished 3-13.

Shockingly, in many key respects the Vikings showed marginal improvement (if any improvement was made at all) over the horrific 2011 season. Things that were open wounds in 2011 didn't always fully scab over in 2012. When viewed in its totality, the difference between a fourth-place team and a playoff team isn't that much – with some notable exceptions.

One area of the Vikings circa 2011 and the Vikings of 2012 vintage that made incredible strides has flown largely under the radar – despite Blair Walsh being named to the Pro Bowl for the NFC.

In a pass-happy NFL, there are some teams that have explosive capabilities on offense. The rest have to rely on stringing long drives together, mixing the run and the pass in order to score touchdowns. The longer you make a team drive, the significantly lower the chances they score a touchdown. Teams that start drives at their own 40-yard line are four times more likely to score touchdowns than teams that start at the 20-yard line. Making a team string together an 80-yard series for a touchdown is one of the most sought-after stats that head coaches have. The difference between the Vikings of 2011 and 2012 is no more pronounced than it is at one key (and relatively obscure) NFL statistic – average defensive starting position.

If you ever dig into the minutia of statistics, there are certain ones that remain amazingly constant league wide. One of them is third-down conversion percentage. If you ever want to win a bet, lay down a couple months mortgage that the NFL average for third-down conversion with be somewhere between 38 and 39 percent. In 2009, it was 38.6 percent. In 2010, it was 38.2 percent. In 2011, it was 38.2 percent. In 2012, it was 38.0 percent.

Teams that make a significant variation on that particularly constant number are the teams that change their fortunes in a hurry. The New Orleans offense dropped by 12.7 percent in that stat. Who 'dat in 'da playoffs? The Indianapolis Colts improved by 8.2 percent against the standard. Who made the playoffs? 'Dey did.

The same is true with average defensive starting position. In 2009, the average starting position for an NFL offense was the 26.4-yard line. In 2010, it was very close (the 26.8-yard line). Then the NFL decided to flip the league on its head with a significant rules change. Kickoffs would be moved forward five yards after being moved back twice when too many kickers started bombing touchbacks. In the new-look, concussion-conscious NFL, the difference in competitive balance can be impacted by a rules change. In the case of the Vikings, the difference in that rules change explains the drafting of Walsh and the "Mission Accomplished!" banner that could be hanging in special teams coordinator Mike Priefer's driveway.
When the rule was enacted following the NFL lockout, the shift was obvious – the average starting position was the 22.1-yard line, a whopping 17.3 percent decrease from the previous year. That is enormous in NFL terms from one year to the next. No other stat had an average jumped that far (up or down) from 2010. Not even close.

In 2010, one kicker – Baltimore's Billy Cundiff – had 30 or more touchbacks. A year later, 21 did. In one year, 30 went from a benchmark to an expectation. Ryan Longwell had 19 touchbacks. In 2010, he had five, which tied him for 26th in the league. In 2011, he had 19, good enough for 28th place.

In 2012, the benchmark set by the first post-change kickoff remained identical – the 22.1-yard line. Yet the Vikings went from significantly behind that line to significantly ahead.

In 2011, the Vikings were 31st in allowing opponents to start from the 24.2-yard line – 2.1 yards worse than the league average and better only than Oakland. In 2012, the Vikings jumped to eighth place, with an average starting position of the 20.8-yard line – 1.3 yards better than the league average.

The improvement was across the board. The Vikings went from 19 touchbacks to 53 and their percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs went from 24.7 percent to 61.6. The percentage of kickoffs that came down at the goal line or in the end zone went from 69.2 percent to 87.2 percent. In 2011, 48.7 percent of opponent drives following Viking kickoffs started at the 20-yard line or worse. In 2012, 80.2 percent of drives started at 20-yard line or worse.

If opponents were going to score touchdowns on the Vikings in 2012, it was going to be because they had to drive 80 yards or more to do so. Much of the credit belongs to the strong kicking leg of Blair Walsh, but just as much credit belongs to general manager Rick Spielman, who saw what the new kickoff rule was doing the game and made the move to assure that the Vikings took advantage of it.

At a time when the Vikings made as dramatic an improvement in record from one season to the next as they have in franchise history, there aren't too many statistical categories that back up why there was such a pronounced change. Once major exception is a stat that most fans don't follow, but one that helps explain how the Vikings made the leap from 3-13 to 10-6 in one season.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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