An interesting article by Steve Politi came out this morning on an idea by Rutgers coach Greg Schiano on a way to eliminate kickoffs in football. As most of you will remember, Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed last year on a kickoff in a game against Army at New Meadowlands field, prompting Schiano to have a strong opinion on kickoffs. As evidenced by our Adam Taliaferro entry into the ESPN Fanwiches contest, I feel strongly about spinal cord injuries as well and am all for listening to ideas on how to reduce the risk in football. At the same time, I am a traditionalist and would hate to see the game severely altered, so I wanted to do a statistical breakdown of coach Schiano’s idea and see what might be the outcome of the Schiano plan versus the current kickoff system.
As outlined in the article by Politi, the Schiano plan calls for the ball to be placed on the 30 yard line in a 4th and 15 situation for the team that just scored. Then the team that just scored has two options. The first option would replace your normal kickoff with a punt play. The other option would replace the onside kick, and would allow the team to attempt a conversion of the 4th and 15 for a first down. If the conversion is successful, the team gets to keep possession, otherwise the defensive team would take over where the play was whistled dead.
It is an interesting concept, but lets get to the stats and see what kind of impact such a plan would have on starting field position. Thankfully, the site cfbstats.com exists, making most of the statistical data I needed for a quick comparison relatively easy to find. I was able to do some quick manipulation in Excel and get what I wanted in less than 30 minutes.
ASSUMPTIONS NOTE: I know that the stats aren’t perfect in accounting for all possibilities, but I think the following is a fair look at the plan as best we can so here are the assumptions that I had to make.
- Not every kickoff from the 2010 stats occurred from the 30 yard line due to penalties and safeties, but the same would be true under the Schiano plan, so you have to assume that such occurrences would happen at the same rate, so I just assumed that every kickoff came from the 30 yard line. There were 8,340 kickoffs in FBS in 2010 and only 209 went out of bounds, resulting in a starting position of the 40 yard line, so I am convinced that we can basically ignore this situation, as it would move the average starting yard line by less than .25 of a yard.
- Another is that sometimes punts are purposfully shortened in an effort the pin the opponent deep in their own end, so we will add 3 yards to the average punt to account for this.
In 2010, the ball was kicked off from the 30 yard line, meaning that a kickoff that resulted in a touch-back went at least 70 yards.
Average Kickoff Length: 62.82 yards
Average Kickoff Return: 21.86 yards
So, 70-62.82 means that the average kickoff was fielded at the 7.18 yard line and then was returned 21.86 yards.
Thus, the average starting field position from kickoffs was the 29.04 yard line*.
Average Punt Length: 40.92 yards
Average Punt Return: 8.92 yards
So, if the average punt went 40.92 yards and was returned 8.92 yards, the net punt was 32 yards.
The Schiano Plan:
Replacing kickoffs with punts:
The first, and main, portion of the plan calls for replacing the standard kickoff with a punt. Looking at our data, if the punts come from the same 30 yard line as the kickoffs, and using the average punt length from the 2010 season, then that would give us an average starting position of the 38 yard line using the punt plan. If we add in our extra 3 yards** then the average starting position would be the 35 yard line. When we compare that to the average starting position of the 29.04 yard line for kickoffs, then if seems like the average starting position would favor the offense by basically 6 yards.
Replacing the onside kick with a 4th and 15 attempt:
This is the area where stats were very hard to come by, so I used the stats given in the Politi article. He used stats from the site advancednflstats.com showing that the average 4th & 15 conversion rate in the NFL was around 18% in 2010 and the average onside kick conversion rate was 25% . We will use this number for looking at the Schiano plan even though they are NFL stats just because the college stats just don’t seem to exist.
There were 124 onside kick attempts in FBS in 2010, basically an average of just 1 attempt per team for the entire year. So, if they were successful at 25%, then 31 attempts were converted. If you take the same number of attempts at 18% for 4th and 15, then just 22 onside attempts would be converted.
I am not sure that this changes the game a whole lot, but lets not forget that for this year, the kickoff was moved up the the 35 yard line, meaning that this distance then becomes move like 11 yards. Sure, this could be offset by moving the position of the punt to the 35 as well, but then I think it becomes more enticing for people like Lane Kiffin to always go for the 4th and 15 conversion because even a play that falls just short puts your opponent right around midfield. The next big step would be for someone to do an injury study to prove that a punt play has a substantial reduction in injuries versus a traditional kickoff. If that happens and the stats prove it would be safer, I certainly feel that the Schiano plan will bring dialog, which is the first step toward change. I think the stats could be argued either way and while I hate to see the kickoff disappear, I think it is a plan that if given some minor tweaking could be backed by a number of coaches, especially in the name of safety. After all, no one wants to see another incident like what happened to Eric LeGrand and countless others before him.
*see assumption #1
**see assumption #2