NFL implements huge new touchback rule, admits it could backfire
The NFL isn't exactly sure if its new touchback rule is a good idea or not.
One of the biggest rule changes proposed by the competition committee this year was to change the touchback. Despite the fact that the NFL has no clue what's going to happen, the league voted to make the change anyway on Wednesday.
Starting in 2016, any kickoff that results in a touchback will give the opposing team possession at the 25-yard line, instead of the 20. The new rule only applies to kickoffs, meaning a touchback after a turnover or a punt would still give the opposing team the ball at the 20-yard line.
The new touchback rule was one of nine new rules that were approved at the NFL's annual owner meeting that was held in Boca Raton, Florida this week.
Of course, the touchback rule is slightly different than the others, because the NFL has no idea if it's actually going to help the game.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said on Wednesday that there was a "safety element" to the change; however, he did point out that the league could rescind the rule after one year if it doesn't actually make the game safer.
"We passed moving the touchback to the 25, which we do think has a safety element to it," Goodell 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."
NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino admitted that the new touchback rule could backfire and have "unintended consequences."
"We put it in for one year so we can look at if there are any unintended consequences, and we won't get stuck with a rule," Blandino told NFL Network on Wednesday, via Pro Football Talk. "It'll be interesting to see how it plays out."
Blandino's right. It will be interesting because, basically, the NFL has no clue if the rule change will lead to more returns or more touchbacks.
The rule has only been on the books for a few hours and there are already two schools of thought.
NFL free agent Jay Feely believes that kickers will now hang the ball up in the air more and force a return, rather than give a team the ball at the 25.
NFL Kickers I spoke with said they would now hit high hang time kicks outside the numbers to the goalline. https://t.co/xDBe2gzGT5— Jay Feely (@jayfeely) March 23, 2016
Only a 1% better chance of scoring from 25 than from 20.. From a strategy point.. Imma bat a 1000 on touchbacks this year #ColtsNation— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) March 23, 2016
The crazy part is that no one actually knows what strategy is going to work better.
The downside of Feely's plan is that aiming your kickoff -- kickers would likely shoot to hit a high kick that lands at the one-yard line between the hash and the sideline -- isn't easy. If aiming a kick was simple, every kicker would make 100 percent of their field goals.
If a kicker starts aiming their kickoffs and mishits the ball, it could go out of bounds or just come up short and land at the 5- or 10-yard line instead. That kind of situation would absolutely benefit the returner.
Speaking of returners, they're the other part of the equation here.
There were nine teams in the NFL last year that averaged over 25 yards per return. If their returner is getting the ball at the one-yard line, they'd be able to get it to at least the 26 based on last year's averages. That being said, a higher kick would theoretically keep longer returns from happening.
As for Feely's point, stats from last year seem to show that his plan might work.
The Browns, Giants and Jets kicked the fewest touchbacks in 2015, which means that opposing teams had the most opportunities to return kickoffs against them. That didn't hurt those three teams in the kickoff coverage rankings though. Over the 2015 season, the Giants finished fifth, the Browns finished eighth and the Jets finished 14th in kickoff coverage.
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