Steelers Still Have To Worry About Kickoffs

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.

Rk Player Team KO Yds OOB Avg TB Pct
1 Billy Cundiff BAL 79 5,620 1 71.1 40 50.6
17 Olindo Mare SEA 72 4,679 1 65 20 27.8
18 David Akers PHI 96 6,214 2 64.7 23 24
36 Jeff Reed SF/PIT 26 1,542 0 59.3 1 3.8
37 Shaun Suisham PIT 40 2,357 1 58.9 2 5

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
1993 1976 60.32 527 26.67%
1994 2084 60.27 146 7.01%
2010 2465 64.32 409 16.59%

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.

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  • Cols714

    Even without getting a touchback, the kick defense would have have less yardage to cover down the field. So they’d be more likely to be in the returners face when covering the kick.

    Does that make sense?

    • JJ Cooper

      Yeah Cols, I would agree that even for lesser kickers, the risk of a long return is reduced significantly by the change. But until you raised that point, I didn’t realize how significant a change it was. In fact, I’m going to update the story to reflect this.

      To give that some perspective. Last year there were 23 kick returns for touchdowns in the NFL. In 1993 (last year before the rule change) there were four. In 1994 with the longer distance to kick, there were 16. The average return jumped from 19.5 yards in 1993 to 21.2 in 1994. Last year, the average return was 22.3 yards per return. And the reduction in return touchdowns wasn’t a one-year anamoly, there were six TD returns in 1992 and eight in 1991.

      People may like to say we are in a golden age of returners, but that doesn’t explain the discrepancy in kick return touchdowns. Logically, punt return TDs would not have been affected by the change, and the numbers reflect that. In 1993, there were 14 punt return touchdowns. In 1994, there were 16. Last year there were 13. So it would appear a large part of the difference can be explained by the difference in kicking from the 30 or the 35.

      I need to throw in the disclaimer that we’re talking about a pretty small sample size of events.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Is there a way, through DVOA or some other metric like expected points, to compare the value of different kicking skills? For example, would a top 5 FG % + an average KO distance be worth more than an average FG % + an average KO distance?

    I wrote a reply once on SL about FG%. I can’t find it, but my memory was than the best FG % kickers would make about 2 more FGs per year than the average FG % kicker. If that’s right, and assuming the difference is skill instead of the product of a small sample size, that’s an expected point difference of 6 for that skill. That seems likely to be a smaller difference than between a great KO guy and an average one (it isn’t exactly the same, but the numbers JJ cites suggest that there was around a 28 point difference per year between our KOs in 2009 and a good KO team).

    At first glance, it seems like a modern day Daluiso may be more valuable than an FG % specialist.

    • Mike L

      I did some checking, I took the top and bottom two teams in scoring in each conference, then divided the yard by points scored to establish avg yds per point, which was 15.11 for the 8 teams. NE had the best avg of 11.24 and Carolina was the worst 21.09. Contributing factors aside from yardage would be turnover differencial and red zone efficiency. Also it is more difficult to score in the red zone so I have concluded that about 20 yards equal one point. The difference between the Steelers KO and a good (no best) avg is about 7 yards (66-59). The Steelers avg just over 4 KO/ game while the Eagles avg 6. Using this data the Steelers miss out on 28-42 yds/game or 1.5 to 2 points. The best kickers in history are about 85% and avg 30 attempts per season. If they were 75% they would miss 3 extra FG/ season, this is 9 points. The only effect that can not be tested is they morale of the team after a miss or clutch kick. But is would seem that KO is better.

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