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Running the Numbers: Returning the Ball Out of the End Zone
Throughout the season, we’ve seen Felix Jones and Lance Dunbar return kickoffs after fielding the ball inside the Cowboys’ end zone, sometimes rather deep. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had my fair share of “What is he doing?!” exclamations when seeing the Cowboys’ returners come out from seven yards deep. It just seems like, more often than not, the returner is stopped shy of meeting the 20-yard line.
Other bad things can happen, too. Of the 183 kickoffs that have been returned out of the end zone in 2012, 17.5 percent have resulted in a penalty, usually holding, on the return team. And as we saw in Seattle, there’s always a chance that the return team ends the kickoff without possession of the ball, fumbling it away and giving the opposition incredible field position.
After running the numbers, however, I’ve reached a conclusion I didn’t think was possible: Kickoff returners should bring the ball out of the end zone in almost all situations. Below, check out the average starting field position of kickoff returns that have been fielded in the end zone in 2012. Note that penalties are included in the results.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 2012 kickoff returns is the amount of success seen by those returners bringing the ball out from the back of the end zone. The starting field position for return men who catch the ball between seven and nine yards deep and still bring it out has been superior to those fielding the ball from one to six yards deep.
The most obvious explanation for such a phenomenon is that returners who field the ball deep only bring it out of the end zone if the kick is low. On kickoffs without a lot of hang time, returners are taught to return the ball because the kickoff team doesn’t have as much time to run down the field. Overall, returners have brought out 39.2 percent of kickoffs fielded between seven and nine yards deep. In comparison, kickoffs fielded four to six yards deep have been returned on 86.3 percent of occasions, and those fielded between one and three yards deep have been returned 95.6 percent of the time. Thus, returners hand-select the best deep kickoffs to return. Still, the success they’ve had suggests return men might want to think about bringing the ball out even more often.
Of course, handing over the football is a huge concern for return teams; it can be devastating to not only lose possession, but also almost guarantee your opponent points with the ball usually well inside field goal range. However, fumbles probably aren’t as likely as you think. Of the 583 kickoff returns thus far in 2012, the return man has fumbled on just 2.9 percent of them. The number is 3.8 percent for returners bringing the ball out of the end zone, with the return team losing the ball on 2.7 percent of such returns. With 2.9 percent of all returns being fumbled, it’s unlikely that 2.7 percent of them would result in a lost fumble; however, just to be conservative, we’ll assume returners lose the ball at such a rate.
Using historical data, we can estimate the number of points an offense is likely to score on any given drive. For example, in normal game situations, a first-and-10 at the 20-yard line is “worth” 1.29 points to an offense; that is, over the past decade, NFL offenses have scored an average of 1.29 points per drive when starting at their own 20-yard line.
Using the results from 2012 returns and after incorporating both penalty and fumble rates into the mix, we can determine the number of points an offense can be expected to score after returning the ball out of the end zone. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll assume any fumble lost would result in the opposition recovering the ball and starting their drive at the receiving team’s 20-yard line, historically worth 4.16 expected points.
You can see that, although the advantage is small, return teams should typically bring the ball out of the end zone, regardless of where it is. Although the potential for a penalty (17.5 percent) and lost fumble (2.7 percent, at the most) is very real, it doesn’t outweigh the upside of a big return. Even when fielding the ball in the back of the end zone, return teams have managed to begin their drives past the 20-yard line nearly half of the time. Fielding the ball one to three yards deep, teams have started past the 20-yard line on 56.2 percent of occasions.
Plus, let’s don’t forget exactly how much big returns increase expected points
. Kickoff returns for touchdowns are obviously incredibly valuable, although there has been only one kick returned out of the end zone for a touchdown all season. Nonetheless, even a drive starting at midfield is worth 2.29 expected points, exactly one more than starting at the 20. Meanwhile, a drive starting at the 10-yard line is worth 1.15 points to offenses, just 0.14 fewer points than a drive that begins after a touchback.
Ultimately, the 2012 kickoff return results are a great example of how stats can be useful. Our memories seem impeccable to us, but the truth is that they’re often flawed. We remember Jones fumbling the opening kickoff in Seattle and the instances that he has failed to reach the 20-yard line, but we forget plays like Dunbar’s 44-yard return against the Giants on Sunday because, well, that’s what he’s “supposed to do.”
The truth is that, outside of deep directional kicks near the back corner of the end zone, returners can probably help their teams by not taking a knee. And maybe instead of exclaiming “What is he doing?” when the Cowboys bring the ball out from deep in the end zone, I’ll instead be wondering, “How could he take a knee!?”