Touchbacks up nearly 30 percent thanks to new rule
Want to grab a snack or take a bathroom break during an NFL game without missing any action?
Just wait for a kickoff.
The chance of even seeing a return is just 53.8 percent. That means nothing happens almost half the time. Not a single second is wasted on the game clock.
When the league's competition committee decided in March to move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, everyone expected more touchbacks. That's what they got. Touchbacks are up nearly 30 percent from this time last year.
After nine weeks and 130 games in 2010, there were touchbacks on 241 of 1,275 kickoffs. That's 18.9 percent. Through the first nine weeks this year, there's been a whopping 608 touchbacks on 1,315 kickoffs for a rate of 46.2 percent.
The rule change was made for safety purposes because reducing the number of returns decreases chances of injury. But it's also meant fewer opportunities to see potentially exciting plays.
''It's always a tone-setter,'' Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April said about kickoff returns, ''because when you kick off, or even when you receive, you're either starting the half or somebody just scored.
''So, you have to regain the momentum with the kickoff return, because they just scored, or you have to maintain it with the kickoff coverage, because you just scored. So you're coming off of one of those two psychological plays and then you're also starting a half with that. So I think it is important, obviously.''
While touchbacks are up dramatically, so is the average yards returned on kickoffs. Players are averaging 23.8 yards per return, ahead of the league record of 23.7 set in 1962. The all-time individual record is in jeopardy, too. Joe McKnight of the New York Jets is averaging a staggering 40.2 yards per return. Green Bay's Travis Williams holds the record with an average of 41.1 yards per return in 1967.
There's a simple explanation for higher averages. Players returning balls that are kicked into the end zone get the yardage before reaching the 1 credited to their stats. A 29-yard return is the same as a touchback if a returner brings the ball out from 9 yards deep in the end zone.
''It's definitely misleading,'' April said. ''What you have to look at is the starting point. The starting point is down, and really that's all that counts, that's all that matters. We had a couple of returns early in the year where we brought it out and we started at the 14 and it was a 22-yard return. It's kind of how you want to look at it. It's an OK return, but not really. So look at the overall starting point and it's down. The overall average is up. There's only one reason - they're taking it out from deeper.''
The average starting field position this year is the 21.8. That's the lowest since at least 1995, according to STATS LLC. Last season, the average was the 26.8.
''It all depends on your coach. Some want you to take it out and take a chance, some coaches give you the option and others say no,'' New York Giants returner Devin Thomas said. ''It all depends on your teams, but yeah, it's tough out there. You want to be a playmaker and make a big play, but you never know. It's still the opportunity for a home run, but it's a gamble.''
Teams with elite returners are more likely to allow their guys to bring the ball out from anywhere in the end zone. Chicago has Devin Hester, so it's no surprise the touchbacks percentage against the Bears is the third lowest in the league at 30.8 percent.
Hester had a career-long 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last month against Minnesota, extending his NFL record for combined kick-return touchdowns to 16.
The Jets with McKnight have the fourth-lowest touchbacks-against percentage at 31.4. San Francisco is fifth at 34.5. The NFC West-leading 49ers have one of the more dynamic returners in Ted Ginn Jr.. He had a 102-yard kickoff return and a 55-yard punt return for a score in a 59-second span in Week 1.
''I think that's more surprising than anything, that teams are willing to take chances on balls that, in the past, nobody would bring those balls out,'' Niners special teams coach Brad Seely said. ''They're just trying to make a play. And they're willing to have the ball at the 12 or the 14 at times because that's the tradeoff for trying to make a big play.''
Still, there's no denying the rule change is affecting even the best returners. Tennessee's Marc Mariani, a seventh-round pick who went to the Pro Bowl last year, only has 11 returns this season for an average of 24.6 yards. Only two teams have downed the ball in the end zone at a higher rate than the Titans, who've done it 67.6 percent of the time.
''Guys are getting down there faster,'' Thomas said. ''If they get down there and read the scheme, they can make a tackle inside the 20. I've noticed a lot of guys getting tackled inside the 20, me included. It is frustrating, especially with the offensive coordinator wanting to start at the 20-plus. If you don't get that, it's frustrating.''
AP Sports Writers Cliff Brunt in Indianapolis, Janie McCauley in Santa Clara, Calif., Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., contributed to this report.