Other than watching my fantasy team crumble to a four game losing streak, few things this NFL season have made my heart sink as much as watching Alex Erickson return kicks from five yards deep in the end zone only to be stopped at the 16-yard line. In recent years, the NFL has taken steps to make the game safer. One such attempt went into effect this year: on kickoffs, the return team is now awarded the ball at the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line when a touchback occurs.
While watching my Cincinnati Bengals (yes, that’s why you’ve never heard of Alex Erickson) consistently bring kicks out of the end zone, only to get stopped short of the 25-yard line, I started to wonder; Should all kickoff returners be kneeling the ball if it’s anywhere in the end zone? Essentially, are the expected points higher on kickoffs into the end zone if the return man brings the ball out or if he kneels? Let’s look at the data.
Expected points uses historical data to place values on certain situations. For example, if we observe all situations that involved 1st and 10 from the offense’s own 25-yard line, we would get a value of approximately .59 expected points for the offense. What this number tells us is that the offense is more likely to score next, and the sum of their next score is .59 points higher than the sum of the defense’s next score.
Relating this to kickoffs, we simply have to look at the expected points of returning the ball based on where it is kicked compared to the expected points of taking a knee and starting your drive at the 25-yard line. What the graph below shows us is that essentially, any instance in which you can take a knee, you should take a knee. In fact, you may be better off letting the ball bounce at the 5-yard line and into the end zone for a touchback. As you can see, the break even point for expected points is around the 5-yard line.
Shifting touchbacks from the 20 to the 25-yard line should have a seismic shift in the decision making process of the return man. In the past, the team was better on average if the returner ran the ball out anytime it was 5 yards deep in the end zone or shorter. Now it seems, the returner should accept the touchback anytime it is a possibility. Of course there are exceptions to this such as end of game/half situations or teams that may need a high variance play or set of plays to win, but in general, the returner should be kneeling and giving his team the ball at the 25-yard line.
Smash-mouth football? No. Data driven strategy helping teams adapt to a changing/safer game resulting in optimal field position? Yes.