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When NFL owners voted at their annual meeting to change the kickoff rules so that a touchback now gives the receiving team the ball on the 25-yard line, they did so with player safety in mind.
The kickoff has long been one of the most dangerous plays in the sport – 11 players running at full force and smashing into each other is never going to end well – and the new rule was supposed to incentivize more touchbacks.
Fast forward to Week 1 of the season, though, and we’re already seeing savvy coaches like Bill Belichick exploit the new touchback rule to their advantage.
Don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
Against the Cardinals on Sunday night, the Patriots took a late lead, 23-21, with 3:44 left in the 4th quarter. Instead of bombing the ball out of the end zone, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski finessed a short, high kick that landed on the 3-yard line.
The kick – known as a “mortar” kickoff – worked perfectly: it landed so deep in Cardinals’ territory that return man Andre Ellington had no choice but to return it, only the ball had been kicked so high in the air that by the time Ellington finally caught it, New England’s special teams unit was already well downfield.
Ellington was swallowed up at the 17-yard line, and a holding penalty against Arizona on the return set them all the way back to the 8-yard line. With the new touchback rule in place, that was a net difference of 17 yards.
New England ended up winning after the Cardinals missed a 47-yard field goal on the ensuing drive. In Belichick’s eyes, Gostkowski’s kick, and that 17-yard difference, won his team the game.
“Certainly, we had an opportunity to kick it out of the end zone on the last kickoff, but with a good field goal kicker, a good offense, good quarterback, we try to put them on as long a field as we could,” Belichick said, according to Pro Football talk. “That was a great situational play and we needed it at that time.”
He added: “In the end, those yards showed up on the other end of the field.”
The sample size is still far too small to know whether or not the new touchback rule is producing more touchbacks, or if it is resulting in more plays like the one we saw at the end of the Patriots game. Controlling for just Week 1, though, this year did feature more returns than in 2015. And, as Dan Wetzel of Yahoo noted, Week 1 was also before less savvy coaches were able to copy Belichick’s strategy:
In Week 1 of this year, 37.6 percent of kickoffs were returned. That is up from 30.1 percent for Week 1 last year, according to Newsday. It is also before influence leaders such as Belichick can affect future attempts by other coaches across the league. Note: that is still below the 2015 full season return-rate and just 23.1 percent of kicks hit into the end zone were returned, so it’s not all a failure.
The NFL has said it will evaluate the efficacy of the new touchback rule after Week 4. In the meantime, expect more and more coaches to follow Belichick’s lead on the kickoff.