84 percent of all kickoffs traveled into the end zone (136 of 162) on opening weekend this year. 49 percent of all kickoffs (79 of 162) resulted in touchbacks. Both numbers are significantly up from opening weekend last year, where 39 percent of kickoffs made it into the end zone (54 of 137) and a miserly 18 percent (24 of 137) ended up as touchbacks.
Hoping to address safety concerns, the league moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line for this season, and it has already altered the game as the numbers above show. But while all teams are booming the ball further than ever before, or at least trying to, there were marked differences in the return game on opening weekend. Here are two games each at the opposite end of the returning spectrum:
- DEN - OAK: (10 kickoffs, 10 in end zone, 10 touchbacks); TEN - JAC (8 kickoffs, 8 in end zone, 7 touchbacks)
- BUF - KC: (10 kickoffs, 8 in end zone, 2 touchbacks); SEA - SF (12 kickoffs, 11 in end zone, 3 touchbacks)
It appears that teams adopted radically different approaches to the return game on opening weekend. The first four teams returned only one out of 18 kickoffs (6%), the second group of teams returned 17 of 22 kickoffs (77%). After the break, we look at the relevance of these facts for the game between the Cowboys and 49ers on Sunday.
You already noticed that the 49ers were part of the return-happy, second group of teams. Because the Seahawks didn't score all that many points against the 49ers, the Niners received only four kickoffs. And the 49ers' Ted Ginn returned every single kickoff, one of them for a 102-yard TD-return. Here are the four kickoffs by the Seahawks' Steven Hauska as detailed in the playbook:
1. S.Hauschka kicks 70 yards from SEA 35 to SF -5. T.Ginn pushed ob at SF 14 for 19 yards
2. S.Hauschka kicks 70 yards from SEA 35 to SF -5. T.Ginn to SF 23 for 28 yards
3. S.Hauschka kicks 65 yards from SEA 35 to SF 0. T.Ginn to SF 27 for 27 yards
4. S.Hauschka kicks 67 yards from SEA 35 to SF -2. T.Ginn for 102 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Hauschka's kickoffs were not bad kicks by any means. Three were in the end zone, one was right on the line. Yet the 49ers decided to take their chances with a return each time. And even without the TD return, their field position improved because of these returns.
1. D.Buehler kicks 62 yards from DAL 35 to NYJ 3. A.Cromartie to NYJ 22 for 19 yards (V.Butler).
2. D.Buehler kicks 74 yards from DAL 35 to NYJ -9. A.Cromartie to NYJ 13 for 22 yards (J.Holley).
3. D.Buehler kicks 65 yards from DAL 35 to end zone, Touchback [Ed. note: kicked to NYJ -9]
4. D.Buehler kicks 72 yards from DAL 35 to NYJ -7. J.McKnight to NYJ 20 for 27 yards (B.Church).
5. D.Buehler kicks 59 yards from DAL 35 to NYJ 6. A.Cromartie to NYJ 16 for 10 yards (D.McCray).
It's hard to tell on Buehler's first and last kicks whether he perhaps had instructions from coach Joe DeCamillis to kick it high and short. It looked like those two kicks were particularly high (but it's hard to really tell from the film).
Buehler certainly has the leg strength to kick the ball all the way to the back of the endzone, as he did with kickoffs two through four (NFL stats count every touchback as a 65 yard kickoff, even if it travels far into the end zone - I looked at the tape, the ball was caught at the NYJ -9).
Either way, the 49ers look like they'll try to return every kickoff, and they're good at it. Best not to give them a chance. If Buehler puts the ball out of the end zone on every try, Alex Smith will have to drive the 49ers 80 yards for a score. I like the Cowboys' chances in that scenario. A lot.
The Cowboys shouldn't even think about fooling around with short kickoffs. They should tell Buehler to kick the ball into the stands.
This is where Buehler gets to earn his paycheck. And his roster spot.
Don't get cute.