The NFL will be spotting touchbacks at the 25-yard line this year, but will that mean more touchbacks or more kicks going high and short of the goal line – and short of Cordarrelle Patterson)?
While other rule changes voted in this week at the NFL owners meetings might receive more attention, the most common change that fans will see in 2016 is moving touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line.
The NFL has been trying to limit what it considers a dangerous play because of the high-speed nature of blocks and tackles on kickoff returns, and moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line could encourage more kickoff returners to take a knee in the end zone and have their team start an offensive series on the 25-yard line.
However, the Minnesota Vikings have been aggressive in returning kickoffs that are fielded deep in the end zone – for good reason and with good results. Last year, the Vikings led the NFL with an average of 28.3 yards per kickoff return and were the only team to have six returns of 40 yards or more.
For all the frustration about untapped potential with Patterson as a receiver, he still led the league with his 31.8-yard average on kick returns and was the only player to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2015.
Although the rule change to spot the ball at the 25-yard line is being enacted in 2016 to try to encourage more touchbacks, Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s Competition Committee, says there could be another reaction from teams because of the change.
“We passed moving the touchback to the 25, which we do think has a safety element to it,” McKay said. “We passed that also for one year because we do want to see if it changes the numbers and how it impacts the game because there is that thought that there will be some more short kicks.”
In 2015 there were 11 kickers who had more than 15 kickoffs and put two-thirds or more of them for touchbacks, led by Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee having 87 percent of his 77 kickoffs go unreturned.
Only seven kickoffs were returned for touchdowns on the season – Chicago’s Robbie Gould was the only kicker to have more than one returned for a touchdown. In all, two-tenths of a percent of kickoffs were returned for touchdowns while the average return was 23.6 yards.
The average starting field position after kickoffs was the 21.6-yard line and Minnesota led the league with an average starting position of the 25.0-yard line.
But the Vikings already saw plenty of adjustments to how teams approached them on kickoffs because Patterson’s abilities as a returner. Because of Patterson’s success, teams occasionally decided to kick it short of him, either hanging it high or drilling it low so someone in front of Patterson would return the kick. That led to seven different Vikings returning kicks in addition to Patterson, and Minnesota often employed additional returners in front of him. Fullback Zach Line ended up with three returns and punt returner Marcus Sherels had two, despite Patterson still lining up deep to return kicks that reached the end zone.
Former NFL special teams coach Gary Zauner, who was with the Vikings from 1994-2001, believes the strategy for teams kicking off could change as the season progresses.
“In college, the teams that have a lot of speed aren’t going to kick it deep and will hang it high and short and try to tackle them by covering the kick,” Zauner told the Houston Chronicle. “In the beginning of the NFL season, I think it will be fine before there are a lot of injuries. Later in the season, when guys get hurt and you have some starters covering kicks on special teams, I think that’s when that approach will change and people will be kicking it out of the end zone again.”
But would teams elect to kick it short of Patterson even more now that touchbacks will be spotted at the 25-yard line, where the Vikings’ average starting field position was anyway? That remains to be seen, but the team likely will continue to keep potential return men about 10 yards in front of Patterson for that very reason.
Last year, New England’s Stephen Gostkowski and Carolina’s Graham Gano led the NFL with 69 touchbacks each. Twenty-one kickers had 40 or more touchbacks, and that number could rise if return teams see the benefit of simply downing the ball in the end zone and starting the offense on the 25-yard line.
However, 10 return men averaged more than 25 yards per return, led by Patterson’s 31.8-yard average and two returns for a touchdown.
The new rule might also change the Vikings’ approach to kicking off. Last year, 82.9 percent of Blair Walsh’s kickoff reached the end zone, four percentage points lower than the NFL average, and 54.7 percent of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, also about four percentage points lower than the NFL average.
Still, Vikings opponents started, on average, at the 22.7-yard line after kickoffs, ranking Minnesota 29th in that category.
Even so, the rule change could mean they take their chances and try to have Walsh kick it higher and leave it to the coverage teams to try to pin their opponents inside the 20-yard line, and the consistent environment of the new U.S. Bank Stadium could also affect their decisions on kickoffs.
Either way, it will be interesting to see how the change in the touchback rule will affect how teams approach the Vikings and Patterson.