The Future of Special Teams in the NFL
7 minute read · Issue Number 33 · September 11th, 2020
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The NFL is back! Are you as excited as I am? I know you are! 😉
Given that American Football is back, I think it's a great time to study an exciting yet uncertain side of the sport. Special teams.
The NFL analyzed statistics and conducted different studies in the last decade, and they found a correlation between special teams and injuries. The study found that the risk of getting injured during special teams plays is four times greater than on running or passing plays.
Could the NFL eventually minimize the number of special teams plays or even remove them from the game?
In today's edition of the magazine, we'll take a deep dive into the discussion, and our guiding questions will be:
What is the role of special teams?
How valuable are kick and punt returns?
What is the future of special teams?
Let's kick it!
Each team has three groups: offense, defense, and special teams.
When led by a kicker, special teams perform in kickoffs and in plays that add points (i.e., field goals, extra points).
When led by the punter, special teams play when the ball must change possession (i.e., the offense fails to convert on third-down).
A kick return happens when a player receives a kickoff from the opposition and attempts to carry the ball up the field. Kick returns occur after scoring plays, at the beginning of each half, and at the beginning of overtime (if needed).
A punt return is when a player from the opposing team receives a punt at any point of the game and attempts to advance the ball as far as possible downfield.
Given that the kick and punt return plays have historically posed the highest risk of concussion to players, the NFL has continuously been updating its kicking rules to reduce or discourage the number of returns and hence, diminish the risk of brain injury.
The following graph shows the trend of the number of attempted returns in the last decade:
In 2019, teams returned on average 1.7 punts and 1.8 kickoffs per game, while in 2011, teams used to return 2.2 punts and 4.0 kickoffs per game.
To decrease kickoff returns and injury probability, the league:
Pushed the kickoff line 5 yards forward from the usual 30-yard line (to generate more touchbacks)
Awarded the receiving team with five additional yards for a touchback by placing the ball in the own 25-yard line (instead of the 20).
Nevertheless, data shows that the overall number of concussions hasn't declined as expected:
Indeed, this graph does not tell the full story because other factors could contribute to the total number of brain injuries. However, the NFL is now increasing the attention given to punt and kick return plays and is continuously looking for solutions to keep the game safe and exciting.
The Value of Returns
Some statistical junkies studied the value of kick returns. Here are some of the findings:
For kick returns:
The average number of yards per return has been under 25 yards for the last nine seasons.
If the ball is landing in the endzone or at yard zero, it is more efficient to take the 25 yards of the touchback.
If the ball lands between yards 1-5, returning it will not provide a significant advantage in the game.
For punt returns:
The average yards per return have been under ten and have been decreasing at a constant rate.
Could the league encourage more fair catches and fewer returns by awarding the receiving team with 10 yards from the spot of the fair catch of the punt?
Statistic junkies have a thing called Expected Points (EP). Long-story-short, EP is the number of points that each play expects to add up to the final score.
Punting is a play that rarely adds Expected Points (EP) to the punting team. In the next plot, we can see the expected points for punts along various yard lines:
From the graph, we can learn that the farther away a team is from the end zone, the more negative impact the punt play will have on the team's expected outcome.
Additionally, running or passing on 4th down instead of punting could have a better point-expectation of the outcome depending on the distance to the end zone and yards-to.go.
In the following graph, we can see the comparison between the different alternatives:
Statistically, going for it on a 4th and two on your own 20 is a better option than punting.
The punt generates negative expected points because of the change in possession and given field position to the opponents. Nevertheless, some times the punting team may have a better alternative than punting the ball away.
Kickoffs and punt returns for the fans are exciting and overwhelming moments. If the end of kick returns is near, everyone will most likely remember Devin Hester's opening kickoff return in the Super Bowl against Indianapolis or Desean Jackson's miraculous punt return against the Giants.
While the future of the special team's role in the game may not be entirely sure, the statistics show that the efforts made by the league to reduce kick returns have been practical. Still, kick and punt plays continue to be a primary concern around the league.
Until next week,
Read more: sportstechbiz.substack.com.
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