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Kickoffs, kickoff coverage and touchbacks

This is not an article about who should be the starting QB.

Denver Broncos vs. Los Angeles Rams Photo by Steve Nehf/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that most NFL kickers can consistently put kickoffs in the back of the end zone. This may be an oversimplification, since there are some who can’t, but bear with me. If that is the case, why would a special teams coach instruct his kicker to kick the ball to the goal line and force a return?

The reason for this lies in the 2016 rule change that brought touchbacks on kickoffs in the NFL out to the 25 yard line instead of the 20. Couple this with the rule change from 2011 that moved the spot for kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 and you make it much easier for every place kicker to kick the ball five to ten yards deep into the end zone.

However, if a team is confident in its kickoff coverage team, it has a chance to make the opposing offense start with a spot worse than the 25 if the kicker kicks the ball to the one (and the team covers well).

In the last preseason game against the Seahawks, the Broncos had a breakdown in kickoff coverage. DeeJay Dallas, who has one of the coolest names in the NFL, returned a kickoff from the six for 45 yards out to midfield. Brandon McManus was forced to make the tackle. That was Dallas’ second kickoff return of the game. In his first, he was able to return for 28 yards. Both results reflect poorly on the coverage team. But why should we care? This was a preseason game.

We should care because the Broncos have been one of the worst kickoff coverage teams in the league over the past two seasons. In 2020 the Broncos were 31st in the league, allowing an average of 30.0 yards per kickoff return. Only the Bucs were worse. For comparison, the Dolphins allowed 15.7 yards per kickoff return. In 2019 the Broncos allowed 26.8 yards per kickoff return, which was 29th.

Two points that need to be made. In 2020, the league set a record for touchback percentage at 61.2 percent. That means that three out of every five kickoffs resulted in a touchback. Compare this to 2003 when only 7.3 percent of all kickoffs resulted in a touchback. The league has been above sixty percent for the last three years.

We know that McManus has the ability to put every kickoff in the back of (or out of) the end zone. His approach on kickoffs is almost casual and you can tell that he is trying to place the kick rather than just kicking the ball as far as he can. His touchback percentage has ranged from a low of 57.5 in 2018 to a high of 76.4 percent in 2019.

McManus has kicked off 540 times in his career and 366 of those have gone for touchbacks - 67.8 percent. Here are the returned kickoffs against McManus by year and the average return.

Year Kickoffs Returns RET% average return
2014 91 27 29.7% 26.1
2015 81 24 29.6% 20.5
2016 79 24 30.4% 18.3
2017 71 20 28.2% 23.0
2018 73 28 38.4% 20.8
2019 72 17 23.6% 26.8
2020 73 16 21.9% 29.9

You should note that while a smaller percentage of his kickoffs have been returned over the past two seasons, when they have been returned, Broncos have been giving up fairly big returns. You should also note that the average return allowed is a team number (five of the returned kicks in 2020 were not McManus’ kickoffs).

I don’t know if McManus has the leg to match someone like Joey Slye, who is the gold standard for touchbacks on kickoffs. Slye has only been in the league for two years, but he has led the league in touchback percentage both years. He has kicked off 151 times over the past two seasons, and he has only had 10 of those returned. His 94.3 percent touchback rate in 2019 was the best ever for a regular place kicker. That would make Brad Daluiso jealous.

In case you don’t remember him, Daluiso was a kickoff specialist that Mike Shanahan kept on the roster. Brad would also occasionally get used for really long field goal attempts. Daluiso’s best touchback percentage was 80% in 1992, but he was kicking off from the 30 (or maybe it was the 25, I can’t remember when they moved it before the last move). Of course that was back when touchbacks on kickoffs where much more rare than they are today.

Better at touchbacks in Denver versus road games?

McManus has kicked off 279 times in Denver, resulting in 221 touchbacks (79.2 percent). On the road, McManus has kicked off 259 times and 145 have resulted in touchbacks (56.0 percent).

Either way, it appears that McManus is above average at getting touchbacks in Denver (as you would expect), but somewhat below average at getting touchbacks on the road. This might explain why Tom McMahon has had him working on shorter kickoffs so that our coverage team gets some in-game work covering kickoffs. We have eight (not nine) road games this year, so it’s something to watch for when we play on the road.

With only 37 returned kickoffs against Denver, it’s easy to analyze and see if kick-off coverage numbers are normally good (and getting skewed by one or two great returns), or normally bad over the last two seasons.

Over the last two seasons the Broncos have kicked off 146 times and all but five were McManus (Sam Martin did two and Taylor Russolino did three). All five of the kickoffs that were not by McManus were returned. The two from Martin were punts after a safety, which is technically a kickoff. The two from Martin were returned for 17 and 24 yards - which is decent coverage. The three from Russolino were returned for 29, 20 and 53 yards, giving the Bills good starting field position in two of the three cases.

Broncos have allowed an average of 28.7 yards per kickoff return over the past two seasons. That means that unless Denver is kicking the ball five yards deep into the end zone, Broncos’ opponents are starting their drives beyond the 25 normally. The longest kickoff return Broncos have allowed over the past two seasons is a 102-yard TD return against the Chiefs. Denver has also allowed returns of 47, 49, 53, 53, and 72 yards. The standard deviation on the kickoff returns allowed is 17.8.

On the “good coverage” side, Broncos have 10 returns that they kept to less than 20 yards and three where they held the returner to 15 or fewer yards (15, 14 and 12). It would seem that the bad coverage far outweighs the good though with 12 returns of 29 yards or more allowed.

Poll

When McManus doesn’t kick the ball 5+ yards deep into the endzone on a kickoff it’s because...

This poll is closed

  • 78%
    Tom McMahon told him to kick it short of the goalline
    (349 votes)
  • 10%
    He doesn’t have the leg to regularly do this anymore
    (45 votes)
  • 5%
    He is saving his leg for long FG attempts - doesn’t want to wear his leg out early in the season
    (25 votes)
  • 5%
    He is just erratic and doesn’t want to accidentally kick the ball out of bounds
    (24 votes)
443 votes total Vote Now