As Gretz has pointed out, the NFL’s recent decision to move kickoffs back to the 35-yard line should help the life expectancy of Steelers’ fans. Less kickoff returns equals less heartburn when opposing teams take those kickoffs to the house. (That rule by itself should be worth a point or two on the Steelers-Browns’ lines every time the two teams face off).
But to get a better idea of what this means, I pulled the kickoff stats for every regular kicker in the NFL last season. What I found is that, yes, you can expect a whole lot of touchbacks.
What this means is 17 of the 38 kickers (yes, the Steelers’ two kickers were the second and third worst in the league) who had 10 or more kickoffs in 2010 averaged the distance needed for a touchback under the new rules (a 65-yard kick from the 35-yard line will put the ball on the goal line).
Now obviously that doesn’t mean that every 65-yard kick will be a touchback–returners have the option to bring the ball out of the end zone–but it does mean that a remarkably large number of kickoffs will likely reach the end zone in 2011.
The NFL moved the kickoff line from the 35 to the 30 back in 1994 because it was unhappy with the number of kickoffs that were turning into touchbacks. The move worked, as the percentage of touchbacks went from 27 percent to 7 percent. But since then, it has moved back up to 16 percent. There are a lot more big legs in the league now than there were 18 years ago.
|Year||No. of Kickoffs||Avg Distance||Touchbacks||Touchback PCT|
Back when the NFL made the move to the 30, Giants kickoff specialist Brad Daluiso was in a class by himself. His 66.7 yard per kick average and his 60.9 percent touchback percentage was good enough to allow him to make a living without the accuracy to be a regular field goal kicker. He was the only regular kicker at the time who averaged more than 64 yards per kickoff.
Now, Daluiso would just be another good kicker. His 1993 average would be tied for sixth among last year’s kickers, and 20 kickers averaged better than 64 yards per boot.
It’s fair to speculate that we will see more touchbacks in 2011 than we’ve ever seen in any season before. It’s a rough estimate, but the top four kickers back in 1993 averaged 64.15 yards per kick (two-tenths of a yard less than what the average NFL kicker does now). They averaged touchbacks on 48.7 percent of their kickoffs. So a pretty reasonable guess is we could see touchbacks on roughly 50 percent of kickoffs in 2011.
But that doesn’t mean that the Steelers are out of the woods. If Pittsburgh depends on Suisham again in 2011, they likely will see few touchbacks. If you look back to 1993, there is no regular kicker who averaged exactly Suisham’s 58.9 yards per kickoff, but future Steeler Chris Gardocki’s 58.6 yards is pretty close. Gardocki had touchbacks on only 14.8 percent of his kickoffs.
So Pittsburgh will face some interesting decisions whenever the CBA is reached. Suisham did well as a field goal kicker, but by going for a kicker with a better leg, they could largely eliminate kick returns as a worry. Another option is that Pittsburgh could add a kickoff specialist. It’s something they have never done, but with a shorter field to the end zone, it’s possible that a kickoff specialist could replace another special teams player–after all would Keyaron Fox be necessary if two out of every three Steelers’ kickoffs ended up as touchbacks?
And if all this seems a little crazy to speculate so much about kickoffs, do remember that in 2009, the Steelers would have given up nearly two less points per game without four kick returns for touchdowns. In other words, the Steelers gave up seven rushing touchdowns in 2009 and four kick return touchdowns.