Some of us are old enough to remember when a touchback on kickoffs gave teams the ball at the 20-yard line. To try and de-incentivize kick returns because they resulted in a lot of injuries, the NCAA changed the rule and gave teams the ball at the 25-yard line in 2012. And in 2018, another rule change was made: any fair catch called for inside the 25-yard line on a kick return results in a touchback.
Simply stated, due to the rule changes within the last decade, a team should never start inside its own 25-yard line. So why does Texas Tech continue to return kickoffs? Am I imagining that the result always leaves the Red Raiders worse off than if they’d just taken the free yards? Let’s see what the numbers say.
I went back to the 2019 season when the current staff took over, and a full season after the new fair catch being a touchback rule was implemented. Through one and a half seasons, Texas Tech has attempted 45 kickoff returns. That’s 45 times when:
- Opponent didn’t kick the ball out the back of the end zone for a touchback
- Opponent didn’t kick the ball out of bounds
- Opponent didn’t attempt an onside kick
- Texas Tech didn’t elect to take a touchback
What happened on those 45 kick returns?
Seven (7) kick returns were brought out to exactly the 25-yard line, so no harm was done (unless a player was injured) but there was no benefit to be had either.
Twelve (12) kick returns were brought out beyond the 25-yard line, a better result than taking the touchback. On these 12 returns, Texas Tech netted 98 total yards beyond the 25-yard line. That’s an average of about eight (8) yards better than taking a touchback, or starting at the 33-yard line on average. However, 62 of those 98 positive yards occurred on two kick returns. The other 10 positive returns averaged extremely minimal benefit, usually landing somewhere between the 25 and 30-yard line.
Lastly, 26 of those 45 kick returns were returned shy of the 25-yard line. In other words, 26 times out of 45, Texas Tech was worse off for not taking the free 25 yards. On these 26 negative returns, Texas Tech came up a total of 187 yards short of the 25-yard line, or roughly seven (7) yards per kick return. So on these 26 kick returns, they essentially elected to take the ball at the 18-yard line, on average, as opposed to taking it at the 25.
If you combine the net yardage between the 12 positive returns and the 26 negative returns, it’s a net negative of 89 yards. That means even when you factor in the positive returns, Texas Tech was still giving up an average of two (2) yards per kick return on these 45 kick returns.
That may not sound like much until you consider the following…
Also on those 45 kick returns were six (6) Texas Tech penalties and two (2) Texas Tech fumbles. So on nearly one in five kickoff returns, Texas Tech was either committing a penalty (always setting them back inside the 25-yard line) or fumbling and risking immediately turning the ball over to the opponent in the red zone. These eight bad outcomes also don’t account for injuries.
Injuries happen in football. They’re inevitable. But they don’t need to happen on a play where Texas Tech tries to return a kickoff, only gets out to the 21-yard line, then suffers a holding penalty to set them back even further, and also ends up losing a guy who should be playing valuable offensive or defensive snaps.
A few yards here and there may not sound like a lot. Consider some data from this piece that found every 10 yards of field position equates to a 10% differential in scoring probability for that drive. Suddenly, taking the ball at the 20-yard line (or worse) throughout a game rather than at the 25 seems like a bad decision. It seems especially harmful when you consider how many one possession games Texas Tech has lost in the past two seasons. Perhaps even just one or two more scoring drives in that time span and we all feel a little differently about the current state of the program.
There is a way to guarantee the following:
- No injured players on a kickoff return ever again
- No fumbling the ball away to the other team on a kick return ever again
- No harmful penalties that back up the offense to the 10-yard line to start a drive after a kickoff
- Never start a drive after a kickoff with more than 45 yards to go in order to get into field goal range
- Never start a drive after a kickoff with more than 55 yards to go in order to get into the red zone
- Never start a drive after a kickoff with more than 75 yards to go in order to score a touchdown
Stop returning kickoffs. Period.
“But what about all those kickoff returns we saw guys like Jakeem Grant take back to the house?!” Well, two things. First, I don’t see a Jakeem Grant on this roster. If we had one who was routinely returning kickoffs beyond the 25-yard line, I’d be all for taking the risks associated with a kick return and letting him loose. Second, when Jakeem was a Red Raider, the rule change that allowed for a fair catch to result in a touchback didn’t exist. So if he caught the ball at the 2 or 3-yard line, his hand was more or less forced.
That second point is actually brought up in the link above. Ohio State strategically tried to have kickoffs land before they reached the end zone to force the other team into a kick return. They considered giving the opposition a touchback to be a strategic deficiency.
And that begs the question: if the opposing team thinks a touchback is bad, why aren’t we taking the touchback every time?