When the NFL decided to change the point of kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, it was done with player safety in mind. It became pretty clear that there would be significant changes, primarily in the form of more touchbacks. But even the NFL couldn't have imagined how pronounced the difference would be.
In the entire 2010 season, there were 416 kickoffs that went as touchbacks, an average of 26 a week, less than two a game. Four weeks into the 2011 season, there have been 321 touchbacks, an average of 80 a week – five per game.
In 2010, Billy Cundiff led the league with 40 touchbacks. He is on pace to have 68 touchbacks this year. Sebastian Janikowski had 29 to finish second. He's on pace for 60. There are 17 kickers on pace to have 40 or more touchbacks this season. In 2010, there were 17 kickers with 10 or more touchbacks and Cundiff was the only one with more than 30.
As expected, kicker Ryan Longwell was happy to hear the news that the NFL had moved the kickoff line forward and has been a bit surprised by the increased in the number of touchbacks. However, he was quick to point out that the prevalence of long kickoffs has led to a new return policy that could have driven the first-quarter numbers even higher.
"We knew early on that the numbers would be way up," Longwell said. "I'm not sure anyone thought there would be this many league wide. But I still think the belief is that, the longer you get into the season, the more it will level off as the weather changes. The biggest difference we've noticed is that the number should be a lot higher than it is. Prior to this year, if you kicked a ball two or three yards into the end zone, it would be a touchback. This year, kicks are going seven or eight yards deep and they're running them out. Fundamentally, it doesn't make sense because the coverage team is five yards closer, but a lot more teams are bringing them out."
It was assumed that booming kickers like Cundiff and Janikowski would be riding high on the list, but it isn't just the big legs of the NFL that are enjoying a spike in their touchback numbers. Last year, Jason Hanson and Dave Rayner of the Lions combined for just four touchbacks. Through four games, Hanson has 15 … and he is far from alone.
Longwell is one of an impressive list of kickers that has already matched or exceeded his touchback totals from 2010. Longwell had just three all of last year. He already has five. Other kickers that have already topped their 2010 totals include Thomas Morestead of New Orleans (10 in 2010, 12 in 2011), Graham Gano of Washington (9/12), Rian Lindell of Buffalo (8/8), Ryan Succop of Kansas City (8/9), Nick Folk of the Jets (7/7), Mike Nugent of Cincinnati (7/13), Lawrence Tynes of the Giants (6/8), Josh Brown of St. Louis (5/6), Mason Crosby of Green Bay (4/11), Steve Hauschka of Seattle (4/5), Shaun Suisham of Pittsburgh (2/8) and Hanson (2/15).
The massive increase in touchbacks has led to teams allowing returners to take a kick back from very deep in the end zone, especially those who have a player capable of taking a return to the house at any time.
"If you have somebody like Percy Harvin, even if you get stuffed a couple of times, the chance for the home run makes the risk worth it," Longwell said. "Teams are a little more willing to take a chance in order to get a good return."
Without an offseason to get in a lot of special-teams practice time to work on how kickoffs would be handled, Longwell said the process – both the Vikings and throughout the rest of the league – is still unfolding. He said there are basically two styles being employed and both are tinkered with during games.
"We have a couple of different ways to approach it," Longwell said. "The lower driver is intended to be a touchback that hits deep. We also have a higher kick designed to come down around the goal line, but allow our coverage team to get there a lot quicker. The high kick that is one or two yards deep in the end zone is really a problem for return teams because the coverage is down on top of them and they have to decide whether to run it or not. Everybody is looking for an edge right now and looking for a new way to do it."
The victims of the rules change have clearly been return men. Some special teams coaches refuse to take chances on kicks that are four, five or six yards deep in the end zone and many longtime return men have been so engrained not to run back deep kickoffs, it has created some hesitation on returns, many of which get stopped inside the 20. The decision when to and when not to return a kick has evolved into specific scenarios in which taking the chance could result in a big momentum swing.
"It's become a situational thing," Longwell said. "It's a risk, but it's one that, if you have an explosive kick returner, a lot of teams are willing to try. If you're behind and need a spark, you'll be much more likely to bring one out from seven yards deep than you would if you're ahead by 10 points and don't want to take a chance on getting pinned inside your own 10-yard line."
Longwell said, based on the early returns, there aren't too many kickers upset about the new rule. In fact, they love it. He said most older kickers don't lose their jobs because they can't consistently make field goals. They lose their jobs because they can no longer consistently boom kickoffs into the end zone (from the 30-yard line) and there aren't many teams willing to reserve two roster spots strictly to the kicking position. He believes the rules changes could add a couple of years to the careers of kickers who are clutch kicking field goals but needed the extra five yards.
"It has certainly helped all of us older guys to get the extra five yards because that is what has historically got older kickers cut – they can't hit the deep kickoff like they used to. I think the jury is still out as to whether the rule will stand as is or get tweaked, but, speaking for myself, I have to say I'm happy to have the extra five yards and I think our coverage teams are, too. Percy may have a different opinion, but, I believe as the years goes on, we're going to see more kicks returned than we are right now."
Longwell wouldn't come right out and say that he was one of those kickers who has and will benefit from the rules change if it stays in its current form. He didn't have to. His non-stop smile when he talked about it spoke volumes without saying a word.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Longwell among beneficiaries of rules change
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