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Many happy returns? The removal of kickoff returns from the NFL

There have only been about half as many kickoffs returned this season relative to last season.

New England Patriots v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Marvin Mims Jr. was just selected to the Pro Bowl as the AFC return specialist. It’s been a long time since the Denver Broncos had an elite return guy. Mims has one of the four total KOR touchdowns this season. He took it 99 yards to house in the loss to the Dolphins early in the season.

Because of the serious injuries that were found to occur on kickoff returns, the NFL decided to change the rules to allow fair catches on any KOR to be brought out to the 25 (or spotted where it was caught ahead of the 25) . In the past you could fair catch a kickoff, but you got the ball at the spot where you made the fair catch. This rule change was brought up from the college game for this season in the NFL and it has made it much more advantages to fair catch any kickoff that does not land in the end zone.

As a result this season there have only been 550 kickoffs returned through week 17. There were 1013 returns last regular season. In other words, there were 1.9 kickoffs returned each game in 2022 and there have only been 1.1 this season. This is a good thing for player safety, but a bad thing for fan excitement, as long KORs (or punt returns) are one of the most exciting plays in football.

The change after the 2010 season in KORs was that the spot was moved up to make it easier for kickers to get the ball into the end-zone on kickoffs. While the average yards for punt return and KOR have not changed too dramatically over time since the merger, the total number of PR and KOR TDs per season has.

The fewest ever KOR TDs in a full season happened in 1976 when there were only two for the entire league for the entire season. There were also only two in the strike-shortened 1982 season. There were only 975 KORs that season in the nine games per team (28 teams). The most ever KORs was in the 2002 season when there were 2205 with 17 of them being returned for touchdowns. The most ever KOR yards was in the 2008 season when there were 48249 KOR yards. With one game left to play this year there have only been 12651 KOR yards in the NFL.

One has to wonder if the NFL is moving towards removing kickoffs altogether, just having a team start each drive at their own 25 after a score.

In 2007 there were 42 combined punt and kickoff return TDs, which was the most ever. In 2022 we saw nine total which was the least ever for a full season with 32 teams. Exactly 0.5% of all punt and kickoff returns led to touchdowns in 2022 - that’s 1 in 200. That was on 2698 kickoffs and 2188 punts. So nine of 4886 kickoffs and punts resulted in a return TD - that’s 0.2% or roughly 1 in 500.

One reason that modern coaches seem to prefer the fair catch to the return is that it significantly reduces the chances of turning the ball back over to the other team. While Mims had some great and electrifying returns for the Broncos this season (a 52-yd PR and the 99-yd KOR TD). He also fumbled the kickoff against the Patriots which was returned for a TD. Earlier in the season he had another fumble on a punt return. The Broncos recovered that.

There were 25 fumbles/muffs turnovers on punt and kickoff returns this season however, Mims’ fumble was the only one that was returned for an opponent touchdown immediately. Most of the others did lead to an opponent score on the ensuing drive.

So as a fan what do you what to happen to the kickoffs in the NFL? Do you want a return to the excitement that we saw in the 2010s with plenty KOR TDs (and PR TDs) or do you like the way things are now in the NFL with returns?

Poll

What do you think should happen on kickoffs in the NFL?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    Do away with them and give the opponent the ball at the 25 except on onside KOs
    (127 votes)
  • 26%
    Keep them the same as 2023
    (180 votes)
  • 42%
    Do away with the new fair catch on KO rule in the NFL to force more returns
    (293 votes)
  • 12%
    Who cares? I never watch the kickoffs anyway since they are all touchbacks in Denver
    (82 votes)
682 votes total Vote Now