Should You Run a Kickoff out or Just Take the Touchback?
What I would do if I were coaching in the NCAA football championship on Monday
I'm a huge college football fan. That wasn't always the case. Growing up in Colorado, I preferred the NFL and despite how hard it is to be a fan the last few seasons, the Broncos were my team growing up and still are. But I've lived in Texas long enough now, that college football has become my favorite sport to watch.
I married into a big Longhorn family, despite my wife going to TCU (at least with Texas going to the SEC next season, we'll no longer have the awkward weekend every fall where the two play each other). Unfortunately, Texas lost in the playoffs this past Monday so they won't be heading to the national championship and I guess that means I can throw Tommy a bone and root for Michigan instead.
Every time I watch college football, and it's a team I care about, I get a little anxious on kickoffs. Don't get me wrong, I love the excitement of watching freak athletes sprinting down the field and crashing into each other (and I'm all for it, if it's not my team), but they never make sense to me in the context of winning the game. What I mean specifically, is that when I see someone catch a kick off that's within the 5 or 10 yard line, or worse in the end-zone, and then decide to run it out, I can't help but question what their special teams coach is doing!
Prior to writing this, I had no real data to support my hesitation, but watching enough games, I know that returning a kick off for a touchdown seemingly happens VERY rarely. But what's even worse, is that returning a kick off at all, feels like it never gets you to a better starting position than if you had just called a fair catch, which in today's game gets your team to start at the 25 yard line.
It's worth a bit of context and history to look at this more closely. Within the rules of football, there were two big changes that occurred relatively recently related to kickoffs, both focused on attempts to make the game safer (after all, these players are literally sprinting into each other).
2012: The NCAA moved the kickoff line from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. Touchbacks on kickoffs were then awarded to the receiving team at the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line.
2018: Additionally, touchbacks on fair catches inside the 25-yard line resulted in the ball being placed at the 25-yard line.
It's worth noting that the rule change in 2012 was still focused on traditional touchbacks where the player received the ball in their end zone, whereas the update in 2018 meant that a fair catch could be called anywhere (outside of the end zone) and the ball would still be taken to the 25 yard line.
Let’s Get Some Data
The website https://www.footballdb.com has quite an extensive archive of football stats (NFL and college) that is useful to look at in this context.
What we can see below is the average number of kickoffs that are returned (as opposed to fair caught or touched back) between the year 2013 and 2023. It's interesting to see the immediate effect that the 2018 rule change had on the number of kickoff attempts. The furthest data available was 2013, but I would speculate that there was another drop that occurred in 2012 after the first rule change occurred.
The other thing that is interesting, is that even without taking into account the massive drop in 2018, there is still some evidence to suggest that kickoff returns are generally on the decline and that next season (2024), could be the first season that the percentage of kickoffs returned drops below 30%. We can check back on that this year time next year…
Within kickoffs that were returned, we see that in 2023 only ~1.5% are taken all the way back for a score, which is a pretty small number. As a side note, it is interesting however, that there is some evidence to suggest that number may be increasing slightly, leaving one to wonder if it's because kickoff teams aren't getting a little rusty knowing that so many more kickoffs are not being returned anymore.
Regardless, whether it's 0.9% or 1.5% of kickoffs that get taken all the way for a special teams touchdown, it's clearly a very rare event and not something a team should ever count on for their winning strategy.
Heart of the Issue
But certainly just because you don't get a touchdown, doesn't mean that returning the kickoff isn't still going to result in net benefit for your team, right??
This is the crux of the issue in my mind. Looking at the average return distances in 2023, we can see that the majority are 20 yards or less. If we assume the kicker catches the ball at the 5 yard line, this means they don't even make it to the 25 yard line in most cases, which is the spot they get for free if they call for the touchback! What's worse, is you still get some players catching the ball in the end zone and still deciding to try and run it out, falling well short of the 25 yard line.
To try and get a more accurate picture of the likelihood of a player reaching various yardage markers on the field, we can incorporate the distribution of kickoff distances, noting that anything above 65 is within the end zone.
Combining the above two distributions, we can show the survival curve for a player reaching various points on the field.
Sure, if you're a gambler, you could always make it a little bit further than the 25 yard line to help your team and you'd have about a 28% chance of doing that. Maybe you even score that rare touchdown. But you can see above that the probability of getting even just slightly past the 25 yard line falls very quickly. And looking at the glass half empty, the probability you'll actually end up shorter than the 25 yard line is ~70%, which is far worse than playing blackjack in Vegas!
Plus, none of these numbers take into account the likelihood of fumbling when hit or something else like that occurring. Or, since many times the main return man can be your best wide receiver because of their sure-free catching abilities and speed, when you put them on a kickoff return you're also risking pretty serious injuries that will impact your entire offense. After all, this is the reason the NCAA implemented these changes in the kickoffs in the first place, to minimize injuries.
As I said at the start of this, I do love watching kickoffs that get returned because there is something exciting about them. A big part of me doesn't want them to go away. But, if I'm a special teams coordinator for either Michigan or Washington on Monday night, my strategy is to take the touchback each and every time and give my team pretty good field position for every drive.
Of course now that I’ve written this, I wonder if we won’t see a kickoff returned for a touchdown on Monday….