Will the New Kickoff Rules Really Reduce Injuries?

The NFL play-by-play reports when players are injured on each play, or at least when the injury stops play so trainers can attend to the injured player. These are far from 100% all injuries suffered in the course of play, but they are the ones that tend to be significant or severe--ACLs, broken bones, separated shoulders, concussions--the kind of things that really worry players, teams, and the league.

With that information in hand, we can see the injury rates for each type of play, including kickoffs.

Injuries are increasing for all types of plays over the last decade. Last season, the injury rate was 1.6% on runs, 1.5% on passes, 1.3% on punts, and 2.0% on kickoffs. The graph illustrates there is something systemic at work increasing injuries at predictably steady rate, or at least increasing the reporting of injuries. Because of the very real concern around the NFL, I'd assume most of the increase is real.

(If I had to guess, the simultaneous near-doubling of injuries on all play types between 2004 and 2005 could be due to an increased effort to report injuries in the play-by-play. But even accounting for that jump, injuries are still steadily on the rise. I also suspect the drop in injuries in 2010 for passes and runs may not be just statistical noise and could be due to enforcement of helmet-to-helmet hits.)

Increasing the number of touchbacks will certainly reduce the number of kickoff injury rates simply by reducing the number of return plays. Needless to say, the fewer the kick returns there are, the fewer the injuries there will be. The question becomes: How much of a reduction can the NFL expect?

It's hard to estimate how many more touchbacks there will be under the new rules. Kickers may kick higher but shorter, or returners may decide to return the ball from deeper in the endzone than in previous years due to the shorter run-up allowed to the coverage team. But there is preseason data to work with. Because of weather factors (temperature is far more important to kick distances than most think) and other considerations, we'll compare the 2010 preseason to the 2011 preseason.

In 2010 the preseason touchback rate was 19.5%, and in 2011 it doubled to 39.4%. That equates to a 24.8% reduction in returnable kicks (60.6% / 80.5% = 75.2%). The NFL can expect a proportional reduction in injuries on kickoffs, reducing the rate from 2.0% to 1.5%. (We'll plan to revisit the actual numbers later this season.)

But what does this mean in real terms? How many injuries will this prevent?

In 2010, there were about 9.5 kickoffs per game, which is consistent with the previous 10 years. So reducing the injury rate by half a percent won't add up to much. Instead of the 51 kickoff injuries in 2010, we might expect about 38 in 2011. Thirteen fewer injuries over 32 teams and 267 games from week one through the Super Bowl. That's a reduction of 0.024 injuries per team per game--imperceptibly small and meaningless in practical terms.

Again, not all injuries are reported in the play-by-play. But even if we stipulate that this estimate is an entire order of magnitude too small, that's still only 0.2 fewer injuries per team per game!

Further, looking back at the graph above, it appears that over the past few years, injury rates on kickoffs are in line with those on run and pass plays. In fact, in 2008 and 2009 the kickoff injury rates were lower than for typical scrimmage plays. Getting rid of the two-minute warning in the first half, a gimmick that only allows extra commercials, would have a similar injury-reducing effect just by reducing the number of pass and run plays.

In my mind, this miniscule reduction in injuries does not justify ruining one of the more exciting plays in the game. The trade off just isn't wise--there are better ways to address injury reduction. Even if the kickoff injuries are significantly reduced this season, whatever factors have been causing injuries in general to increase remain unaddressed. Those are the things the league needs to fix, or else injury rates will be back on the climb.

As it stands today, the entire NFL post-score kabuki dance is unwatchable. First there's an automatic review that could take up to several minutes featuring two beer and two car commercials. Then there's the virtually automatic extra point, the NFL's version of...well, I can't think of anything else in the universe so pointless. Now throw in the touchback, followed by Dennis Leary hocking Ford F150s and a positively terrifying ad for some horror/sado-torture movie that gives every kid under 13 nightmares for the next week, plus one for Cialis and one for whatever lame hour-long drama featuring a tough-cookie hot single mom NYPD detective is going to be cancelled on CBS later this fall. Then it's back to some moron sideline reporter who tells us something we either already knew or could just as easily be relayed through the booth announcers. Then, finally, it's back to the game.

Pssst, NFL. Your problem isn't not enough touchbacks.

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11 Responses to “Will the New Kickoff Rules Really Reduce Injuries?”

  1. Ian Simcox says:

    "(If I had to guess, the simultaneous near-doubling of injuries on all play types between 2004 and 2005 could be due to an increased effort to report injuries in the play-by-play"

    I thought about that, and when I first saw the graph I thought "well that's just better reporting of injuries". But then I saw the field-goal injuries report rate is fairly steady. If the increase were due solely to better reporting you'd expect to see general increases on all plays.

    Really interesting data though, is there anything to suggest there are more injuries later in the season? That's the argument wheeled out most often against 18 game seasons. It'd be nice to see if that was true or not.

  2. G says:

    Ian, that's not necessarily true because of sample size issues with injury rates on field goals.

    Say the average team attempts 2 FGs a game. There are 2 * 16 * 32 = 1024 FG attempts per game. The recorded injury rate varies between 0% and 0.5%, meaning that there are between about 0 and 5 injuries per year in the entire league on FGs. Being such a rare event, each injury is a significant contributor to the injury rate. That means that a sample size of even 7 seasons isn't enough to definitively say whether or not there is a rise in injuries on FG attempts.

    (subjectively there are also way less instances on field goals of players flying into each other at high speeds from awkward angles, so maybe being on the field goal team is just a relatively safe activity)

  3. Steven says:

    << In 2010 the preseason touchback rate was 19.5%, and in 2011 it doubled to 39.4%. That equates to a 24.8% reduction in returnable kicks (60.6% / 80.5% = 75.2%). The NFL can expect a proportional reduction in injuries on kickoffs, reducing the rate from 2.0% to 1.5%. >>

    Is that so? If it's obvious to everyone on the field that there's going to be a touchback (e.g., if the kicker splits the uprights), maybe nobody gets hit (though I can't see the odds of the punter getting hit going down any). But if the ball is going to land in the end zone, blockers are still blocking. Maybe there aren't as many hits, but there are still hits.

    In other words, this rule change is even dumber than your calculation says it is.

  4. Andy says:

    I have seen about 6 kick returns this season and I think about 4 were for touchdowns. Some of this crazy ratio is because only the best kickers are returning kicks. And some is because week one special teams are confused. But I am wondering if the a lot of it is the angles of attack for the kicking team starting up higher. I wonder if there are stats for kick off returns in the past when there were penalties? If there is something about the angles, then maybe the correct strategy is to keep a couple guys 10 yards back from the rest of the returners or something. My guess is that they will just adjust and we will have mostly touchbacks and bad returns.

  5. Anonymous says:

    You are looking at the frequency of injuries. Perhaps the severity of injuries is greater for kickoffs than other plays.

  6. Jules says:

    Well, if you look at the injuries reported in pre-season this year, there were ZERO reports of concussions for special teams players. I don't have any stats from other years to compare it to, but there were 36 concussions reported on offensive/defensive players in this pre-season. Whether the lack of concussions in special teams players has anything to do with the new kickoff rules is up for debate, but it's certainly encouraging from an injury standpoint.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I agree with S - even touchbacks carry the risk of injury for the other 21 players on the field. Any idea what the injury rates are for touchbacks vs. returned kicks?

  8. Brian Burke says:

    S makes a good point. It's something I can check.

  9. Brian Burke says:

    Another point I'd like to address is the notion that because there were more returns than expected in week 1, that's a good thing and the rule change is no big deal. But the whole point of the rule was increase the number of touchbacks, not pin starting defenses deeper in their own territory. The immediate stated goal of the rule is to reduce the number of returns.

    Once coaches realize their returners are more likely to fumble the ball than get a good return from 7 yards deep in the EZ, we'll see the number of touchbacks climb.

  10. Karl says:

    I believe the NFL was worried about catastrophic injuries. According to Greg Schiano's proposal,"17 to 18 percent of the catastrophic injuries in football happen on kickoffs, yet kickoffs are only about 2.5 percent of the plays in the game."

  11. Steve says:

    Brian, thanks for this. Most blogs/threads i've read on subject populated by neanderthall thought and reaction. Notice other posters have thoughtful posts, perhaps the neanderthalls quit reading at the first stat or logical thought. Have you thought about the Schiano idea?
    Seems intriguing. When I think of a kickoff, there is the excitement of potential for long return and the possibility for a team to immediately get possesion back through onside kick. While latter still there, we're seeing much fewer returns. Thus Schiano idea still has a return and offers possesion opportunity of regaining possession through play or even fake punt. Blocked punt a possibility or turning ball over in immediate field goal range a possibility. Qdmitedly some may not consider punt return as exciting as kickoff, Schiano idea introduces several variables that are a different kind of exciting.

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