It turns out that common sense was pretty much right on the money.
In 2010, the average drive following a kickoff started at the 26.8-yard line. In 2011, the average drive following a kickoff started at the 22.1-yard line. That's a difference of 4.7 yards.
The Packers were among the prime beneficiaries, though that has as much to do with the players as the changes, as the rankings make clear.
On kickoffs, Green Bay's defense took the field at the 22.2-yard line, good for 19th in the league in 2011. In 2010, the defense started at the 29.8-yard line, a woeful 31st. That's an improvement of 7.6 yards, which is a tip of the cap to kicker Mason Crosby (49 touchbacks in 2011 vs. four in 2010) and an improved coverage unit.
On kickoff returns, Green Bay's offense took the field at the 23.2-yard line, good for seventh in the league in 2011. In 2010, the offense started at the 27.6-yard line, good for 11th. That's a difference of 4.4 yards but an improvement of four spots on the league pecking order.
Packers kickoff team: 2011 vs. 2010
2011 — Starting field position: 22.2. 2010 — Starting field position: 29.8
2011 — Kickoffs: 107. 2010 — Kickoffs: 81.
2011 — Touchbacks: 49. 2010 — Touchbacks: 4.
2011 — Touchback percentage: 45.8. 2010 — Touchback percentage: 4.9.
2011 — Kickoffs to end zone: 86. 2010 — Kickoffs to end zone: 14.
2011 — End zone percentage: 78.2 percent. 2010 — End zone percentage: 16.7 percent.
2011 — Inside the 20: 16. 2010 — Inside the 20: 10.
Packers receiving team: 2011 vs. 2010
2011 — Starting field position: 23.2. 2010 — Starting field position: 27.6.
2011 — Kickoffs: 71. 2010 — Kickoffs: 60.
2011 — Touchbacks: 31. 2010 — Touchbacks: 1.
2011 — Touchback percentage: 43.7 percent. 2010 — Touchback percentage: 1.7 percent
2011 — Kickoffs to end zone: 57. 2010 — Kickoffs to end zone: 15.
2011 — End zone percentage: 72.2 percent. 2010 — End zone percentage: 23.8 percent.
2011 — Inside the 20: 13. 2010 — Inside the 20: 9.
Across the league, the total number of kickoffs was practically even, with 2,572 in 2011 and 2,539 in 2010. As expected, touchbacks soared: 1,120, or 45.1 percent, in 2011 compared to 416, or 17.0 percent, in 2010.
What's interesting is how the return game changed because of the rules changes. In the past, teams generally instructed their returners to down the ball if it went 5 yards deep into the end zone. This year, returners like Randall Cobb had the green light to run it out, as coaches gambled on a big play at the trade-off of a potential few lost yards in field position.
Of kickoffs that reached the end zone, returners league-wide in 2011 took it out 44.9 percent of the time. In 2010, returners took it out 56.5 percent of the time. That might seem to run counter to what we just said, but remember, there were more kickoffs going 5, 6, 7 and 8 yards into the end zone that might have only gotten 1 or 2 yards deep last year.
Did the gambling pay off? The answer is "no."
There were nine kickoff returns for touchdowns, including one by Cobb, in 2011. In 2010, there were a whopping 23 touchdowns. In 2011, there were 73 returns of 40-plus yards on kickoff returns. In 2010, there were 115. To make it more of an apples-to-apples comparison, touchdowns fell from 1.08 percent of returns to 0.62 percent and 40-yard returns diminished slightly from 5.42 percent to 5.02 percent.
Teams started inside the 20-yard line 15.2 percent of the time in 2010 but 19.1 percent of the time in 2011. Green Bay's kickoff team forced opponents to start inside the 20-yard line 15.0 percent of the time while its kickoff return team got pinned inside the 20-yard line 18.3 percent of the time.
In comparing Crosby to the rest of the league, he kicked 45.8 percent touchbacks (the league average was 45.1) and 78.2 percent of his kickoffs reached the end zone (the league average was 81.8 percent). Crosby's numbers are weighed down by the affect of Lambeau Field and late-season weather, as Crosby had better touchback and end-zone percentages than his fellow kickers in each of the last two seasons, as shown by the breakout above.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.