Am I really about to write a piece on kicking? Not even field goal kicking, but kickoffs, no less? You bet your first-born son I am. I'm hoping it won't go too long, but who knows?
There's been a lot of talk about how the new kickoff rules are going to cause touchbacks on every kickoff. I disagree, and here's why...
As everybody here probably knows by know, kickoffs will now occur on the 35 yard line, as opposed to the 30 yard line as they have in the past. Most football fans are also well aware that the majority of kicks either go into/through the endzone (resulting in touchbacks, unless your name is Jorrick Calvin) or are caught by the returner within 5 yards of the endzone. Reason would state that the vast majority of kicks will now come to rest in or through the endzone, and the ones that are received in the endzone certainly won't be returned because the kicking team will essentially have a five yard head start compared to previous years. If kickoffs happened like they do now, I would estimate that 95% of kicks would result in touchbacks. However, I foresee a change in the way kickoffs are handled.
In previous years, kickers were asked to gear up and kick kickoffs as far as they can and aim for touchbacks. This is because it takes a considerable length of time to run down the field and cover the return man -- long enough for the returner to cover about 20 yards with ease -- and there is a risk of allowing the returner to break a long one if he's allowed to play it. Kickers are instructed to go "bombs away" to ensure that no return is possible.
Now anybody here who has played golf understands the idea of a finesse shot. Let's say, for example, that you're playing a 290 yard par 4. You know you can drive the green, but you hit your driver 300 yards, which is gonna carry the ball over the back of the green. You could try your 3-wood, but that's only gonna get you 275 yards, and you'll be short. Instead, you can either choke down on the driver, swing a little softer, or play a fade to knock some yardage off. Although it's slightly difficult to do, you can often take the 10 yards off, and put yourself on the putting surface.
Kickers essentially do the same thing. You can be sure that when a kicker is looking at a 35 yard field goal, he's not trying to kick it 60 yards. He's gonna take a little off of it and focus on accuracy. My opinion is that we will see this on kickoffs as well. While all NFL kickers have the ability to kick the ball the required 65 yards to reach the endzone from the new kickoff location, I believe we'll see kickers dialing back their strength and, similar to punting, trying to land the ball within 7 yards of the endzone.
But why would coaches want this? Why not guarantee that the opposing offense has to start on the 20 yard line? The average starting position after a kickoff last season was the 22 yard line (including the more than 30% of kicks that went for touchbacks). Because of this, it made more sense to try to get the touchback and beat the average by two yards. But this year, the kicking team has a a five yard advantage on the return team. Assuming there's a slightly shorter hang time on kicks (which might not necessarily be true), we can assume that starting position will be anywhere from 3-5 yards further back than they were last year. This means a higher risk-reward for the kicking team. By allowing the return man a shot at the ball, more big plays and touchdowns are possible. However, since they will have a five yard head start, they can get to the return man five yards quicker than in the past. This means that plays that would normally end up at the 22 would now end up between the 17 and 19 yard lines. Plays that would have ended up at the 17 yard line (such as a badly played return) now end up at the 12-14 yard line. This 8 yard difference may not seem like much, but defenses get fired up when they get to start drives within the opponent's 20 yard line. Because of this, I believe that coaches will instruct their kickers to try kicking the ball a little higher and shorter to allow returners a chance at the ball. A talented kicker may even be able to force a fair catch on a kick return if he could get enough hang time. Can you imagine if one out of ever three kickoffs (for example) resulted in downing the ball within the 10 yard line? That would be a huge advantage. I predict that the rewards will outweigh the risks, and we will see kickers purposely leaving the ball in play on kickoffs this year.