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NFL Changes Touchback Rule and Kickoffs Are Going to Change AGAIN

The NFL Owners voted in favor of changing kick off rules again. After moving kick offs from the 30- to the 35-yard line in 2011, the league is now changing how touchbacks work.

Previously, teams would have the option to decline a kickoff in the end zone and start the subsequent drive on the 20-yard line. If the kicking team was able to knock the football beyond the end zone and outside the field of play, the return team would automatically start on the 20-yard line.

Now, the receiving team will start on the 25-yard line in both instances.

Teams have been increasing their number of touchbacks in recent years in an attempt to reduce the opportunity for an opponent to return a kick for a big score or some major yards.

There are a few important possibilities that can result from this touchback rule change.

The new rule affects every team

The Buffalo Bills were the only team to pin their opponent to an average starting position inside the 20-yard line on kick offs, thanks to an abnormally high number of muffed kicks and penalties. All 32 teams managed to keep opponents inside the 23-yard line.

This means that a touchback resulting in starting field position on the 25-yard line grants the receiving team better field position than any kickoff unit would have allowed on average. Teams are going to want to kneel the ball whenever possible.

Teams might not want kick the football into the end zone

The corollary to the above fact means that kickoff units won't want to let opponents kneel the ball and start on the 25-yard line. This is better opposing field position than every single unit in the league allowed last season. Many expect kickers to try and land the football on the opposing 1-yard line to force the receiving team to return the football.

On the flip side, the average starting field position from a return in 2015 was the 21.9-yard line. So there is roughly a 3 yard difference in expected starting field position, but a touchback would ensure that opposing teams can't score on the return, while there's a 0.007% chance of a touchdown return on a returnable kick off.

Per the expected points model, a return would start the drive with 0.45 expected points, while accepting the touchback and starting on the 25-yard line would starts the drive with 0.61 expected points.

Compare that to the 0.28 expected points starting at the 20-yard line, and it seems that the smart decision has shifted from returning the kick to accepting the touchback.

Points should increase, regardless of kickoff strategy

Teams will get better at kickoffs over time, but the immediate result will be more points for the league. Assuming that the touchback rate remains the same (which it most assuredly will not), we can simply note the expected points from each starting point.

There were 1,469 touchbacks in 2015, with drives starting on the 20-yard line with 0.28 expected points. If all of those drives were moved to the 25-yard line, with 0.61 expected points, there would be an increased expectation of 485 points across the league over the course of the season. That's an average of a little more than 15 points per team.

Teams will improve their kickoff strategy, and 485 points is an extremely high mark that is the result of napkin math, but the general idea is that better starting field position on drives will result in more points.