Easily the most talked about rule change prior to the past NFL season was the kick off being moved to the 35-yard line. Returners and kickers combined were upset and it changed the game. All in the name of better safety for anyone involved.
As expected, the number of kickoff returns and kickoff returns per game was significantly down from previous years. 53.4 percent of kickoffs were returned this season, a massive drop from 80.1 percent in 2010. Touchbacks soared to 43.5 percent this season, more than two and a half times last year’s rate of 16.4 percent.
Kickoff Returns Last 5 Seasons
Yes the fans didn’t like it. Returners like Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs were outspoken about their dislike. They had a right to be. Stats show that nine kickoffs were returned for a touchdown in 2011, compared to 23 in 2010. Yet injuries did go down in exchange for basically nothing plays. Even Bill Belichick said that aspect should be eliminated from the game.
Now the rule change is moving to the college level. Kickoffs in major college football will move from the 30 to the 35-yard line next season. This change is based upon the statistics shown in the NFL and implemented on the intent to keep players safer.
The change was approved this week by the NCAA playing rules oversight panel, which also said the running start by players on the kicking team will be limited to 5 yards. That is so players cannot get a full speed start at the time they reach the line of scrimmage. This will cut down on high speed collisions.
Obviously with the kick offs from the 35, returners were receiving the ball deeper in the end zone, which likely explains the additional yard and a half per return this year, 23.8 yards compared to 22.3 in 2010.
However what changed dramatically was the average starting field position. According to NFL stats, the average drive after a kickoff started just past the 22-yard line, down almost five yards from 2010.
Now the college game might suffer because of the implementation of the rule. Certainly there will be times smaller, less talented schools will have trouble with their special teams. Hardly is there an upset where a kickoff return isn’t involved.
On the other hand, it could take away starting field position from a better club and force them to start farther from the goal line.
Only time will tell.