Data Points: Returners making most of chances

By now, you’ve probably heard about the NFL rule changes, which include moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line. The NFL Competition Committee cited player safety for both the receiving team and kickoff coverage as the impetus for changes. But the offshoot is a diminished number of opportunities for some of the NFL’s most exciting kick returners.

One of the NFL’s best return men has already made his opinion known on the matter.  Josh Cribbs’ perspective aside, there’s little argument that he, Devin Hester and younger playmakers like the Titans’ Marc Mariani will have fewer chances to take one to the house. The advent of the kickoff specialist and the overall improvement of kickers play a role as well.

Ironically, the competition committee moved kickoffs five yards back from the 35 to the 30 prior to the 1994 season in an effort to make the return game more exciting and increase scoring. But since that season, the number of touchbacks has increased dramatically.  Unfortunately for Cribbs and Hester, that figure only looks to go higher with the latest rules change.

What’s interesting is the increase in return touchdowns during the same time interval, from 16 in 1994 to 17 in 2002 to 23 last season. Despite far fewer opportunities in 2010, kick returners scored more than in 1994 or 2002. While some returners have made the most of limited chances, there might be games this year in which they get zero shots.

— Elliot Harrison

Elliot Harrison is a research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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