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Why the NFL should change the kickoff rule (again)

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Chris Boswell (9) kicks the ball off to the Baltimore Ravens during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Week 15 of the 2021 NFL season is just ahead, meaning we've had ample time to make observations about what's occurred thus far — some of which grind my gears.

One such finding is that scoring is down from 2020:

Season Median Points per Game Mean Points per Game
2021 46.0 46.1
2020 48.5 49.3
2019 44.0 45.3
2018 47.0 47.5

While some of this is likely due to a lack of crowd noise decreasing a road team’s ability to score (mean points scored by away teams was 22.8 in 2019, followed by 24.6 in 2020 and back to 22.8 this year), the fact that the league-wide scoring environment in 2018 was higher than it is today is a bit concerning for the product.

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Some people might like lower-scoring games, but I would like for that to be achieved through the application of brilliant defensive minds, such as Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, rather than bad decisions by coaches and players.

One bad decision — elicited by a rule change in 2016 to have touchbacks on kickoffs result in the offense starting at the 25-yard line — is the insistence on kick returners taking the ball out of the end zone. Meanwhile, the smart teams kick it short and cover, resulting in plays rarely making it past the 25.

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I’ve been sort of obsessed with this for a while, as I wrote about the results of the original rule change here and then here after the subsequent change to make the run-up on kicks illegal in 2018. TL;DR: The original rule change created a big incentive to kick the ball short and cover, while the subsequent change made it less so.


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