In 2018, the NFL made a few changes to their kickoff rules in an attempt to increase player safety (full changes can be seen here). While it does appear to have a positive impact on that, how does it change where teams start drives?
Recently, it seems like teams would rather take a touchback than run the ball out out the end zone. Since 2018, the average kickoff return is 27.15 yards, which is obviously more than the guaranteed 25 yards from a touchback. In the three years prior to the change, teams who returned the ball from a kickoff averaged 26.2 yards, less than the current rules.
By looking at the distribution of starting field positions by teams from kickoffs, we can get an idea of who should be returning kicks and who should be taking touchbacks.
The Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all have high peaks at their own 25 yard line. This means these teams, whether they return it or not, start right around where a touchback would take them.
The Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, and New England Patriots all have shorter peaks and a more flat curve. These teams also have the four highest average return yardage, meaning they should always try to avoid a touchback.
Kickoffs are one way for a team to start a drive, but so are punts. While totally different in the sense that many more factors are involved, starting field position still speaks to how good a team’s return unit is.
The difference between these distributions are very interesting. For example, the Falcons have a pretty flat curve with a longer tail, and the Jets have a double peak, with the highest peak happening around their own 30-40 yard line.
Since 2018, the Jets, Chargers, and Cowboys have started at around their own 29 yard line after a punt, which is the best in the NFL. The Titans, Texans, and Saints have been the worst with an average start at about their own 22 yard line.
Combining these two graphics into a scatter plot, a full picture of a team’s starting field position can be seen.
The New York Jets and Buffalo Bills are the teams benefiting the most from their return units.
The Titans are one of the the worst, averaging about their own 25.5 yard line for kickoffs and less than the 22 for punts, both are below average. The Chargers have one of the best punt return starting yard lines, but average around their 25 yard line for kickoffs.
To be clear though, a team’s starting field position has almost no ability to predict if a drive is successful or not (either a field goal or a touchdown). While significant in a very simple logistic regression, it alone cannot accurately predict successful drives.
The importance of field position is this: you’re going to be more successful if you have less distance to go. It sounds obvious and it is. Offenses are rarely successful over and over again so if a team can decrease the distance they have to travel they have a better chance of being successful.