More on Kick Returns

GUEST POST (Jared):

This one is shorter and just as interesting, I promise.

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post, I took a deeper look at the stats to see which teams were best at kick returns.

Remember, we looked specifically at ‘touchback-eligible’ returns, meaning kicks that traveled into the end zone and were brought out.  We examined these situations because they are instances where returners have to make a choice on what to do.  Our initial analysis of this past year provided a couple of insights.

–        Kick returners have a good sense of when to run the ball out of the end zone, providing their teams, on average, better field position than just taking a touchback.  This persists even on kicks landing deep in the end zone, and even when adjusting for the risk of turnovers (but not injuries).  Therefore, players returning kicks deep in their own end zone are, in fact, probably making the right decision.

–        However, the Eagles performed both significantly worse than average and significantly worse than if they had just accepted a touchback every time.  This raises questions as to why (Boykin’s decision making, coaching, talent, etc.).

But, another question came up.  How much better are the best teams at making these decisions?  The graph below is a repeat of one of our initial graphs, but with all NFL teams included alongside the Eagles and the NFL average.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 11.12.45 AM

The best teams, the Jets, Broncos, and Vikings, averaged over 0.80 Expected Points, significantly higher than both the NFL average of 0.45 and the touchback value of 0.34.

When we look at the return distribution for these successful teams, we can see why this is the case and why their Expected Points are so much higher than the Eagles.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 11.12.53 AM

It may be hard to see on the page, but notice all the kick returns beyond the 30 yard line?

The Jets, Broncos, and Vikings all have a good chunk of returns that go farther (even some touchdowns between then) than the 30.

You’ll notice that the Eagles have none.

Therein lies the difference.  Kickoff returns can have a decent degree of variance, and the overall performance of your return game hinges on the idea that you’ll bust some long returns over the course of the season.

The best teams do that more often, and this year, the Eagles never did.

But the results here got me thinking again (they tend to do that).  If the Vikings, Broncos, Jets, or other teams are so good at returning kicks, shouldn’t they be returning them more often?  And shouldn’t teams with poorly performing special teams take a knee more often?

If teams are behaving logically, we’d expect to see a relationship between return effectiveness and return percentage.

So what do we see?

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 11.13.00 AM

Looks like a relationship to me.

Generally speaking, the better you are at returning kicks, the more often you do it!  (I guess the reverse causality is also possible, but that seems much less likely).

We don’t see all that many weird looking outliers here, although a couple of cases are circled that are worth mentioning.

At first glance, it looks like several teams should be returning the ball more often.  The Jets, Vikings, Colts, and Broncos.  Are there reasonable explanations for why these teams didn’t return more kicks?

With the Broncos, you may have already guessed what’s at work.  Elevation.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of kickoff instances that are only listed in the Play by Play as ‘touchback’ without detail on how far the ball traveled.  I’d infer that most of these are kicks in Denver that simply are put out the back of the end zone given the high altitude.  It’s a shame, because it looks like Denver is pretty good at returning kicks.

The Colts also appear to have some explaining to do.  With such a high Expected Points average, why wouldn’t they return the ball more?  Looking at the data, it seems like they’ve rotated kick returners.  Earlier on in the year, through week 12, they had five different returners who combined to average just better than a touchback in terms of Expected Points.

But for the last few weeks of the season, Deji Karim took over and broke a number of long returns including a 101 yard TD against the Houston Texans.  Their boost came late in the year, and they didn’t have enough time to start moving their return %.

I thought the Vikings case would be easily explained by Percy Harvin getting injured, as he’s a fairly dynamic kick returner.  However, the team’s touchback % on eligible kicks didn’t change after he left the lineup and his replacement also did an above average job.  Maybe they should’ve just returned more (unless they wanted Adrian Peterson to have as long a field as possible!)

The last one I spent some time investigating was the 49ers.  They returned far and away the most touchback-eligible kickoffs, but with roughly average results.  What gives?

I assumed it was a combination of Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams just returning everything in sight.  But even when Kendall Hunter or LaMichael James returns, they don’t willingly take touchbacks frequently.

Jim Harbaugh has a rep as a great coach, with a keen eye towards in-game decision-making.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’s thought about this issue and for whatever reason has emphasized running kicks out of the end zone all the time.  The team is above average at doing so, and does significantly outpace taking a knee every time.  But I have to think there’s more at work there for a team to run kicks out of the end zone over 75% of the time.

Next up we’ll return to our historical draft breakdown, this time putting every round together (once I figure out the best way to display it all on one graphic).

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