With NFL kickoff returns on the verge of extinction due to recent rule changes allowing placekickers to launch off from their 35 as opposed to the pre-2012 placement of the 30 yard line, optimally covering and returning punts has become that much more significant a factor in evaluating special teams play. This piece will focus on the decision-making process for the receiving team in the punt return game. More to the point the objective is to determine the precise yard lines on the field where the receiving team would optimally use each of three potential actions: calling for a fair catch, executing a return, or letting the punt bounce in the field of play.
Punt attempt information for the 2008-2012 NFL regular seasons was tabulated and examined in reaching any conclusions. This study does not include balls intentionally punted out of bounds, punt attempts which were blocked by the receiving team or fumbles resulting from punts which had bounced in the field of play before attempting to be advanced. All data is courtesy of profootballreference.com.
These factors were formulated through research and will be constants throughout this piece:
- Punted balls touching down in play travel an average distance of 7 yards subsequent to initially hitting the ground. This number was determined by observing a sample of punts which were allowed to bounce in the field of play by the receiving team. The 7 yards equates to about -.35 points in expected point production for any offensive drive taking place due to this loss of field position (assuming punt does not travel into end zone). The maximum distance a punt can be expected to travel after making contact with the field is roughly 16 yards.
- The average punt return for the 5 year time period examined was roughly 10 yards. This equates to an additional .5 points scored per possession for the receiving team in the event they do not fumble the return itself.
Chart 1 displays the average points scored per offensive drive at each yard line on the field. Values along the x-axis range from the drives beginning on the offensive team’s own 1 yard line (1) to possessions initiated from deep within the opponent’s territory (99). For this post the regressed group in red representing the linear set of point values associated with each yard line was used. Each yard closer to the opponent’s goal was worth an average of .05 points in excess of the previous yard-line.
Chart 2 below contrasts expected point values for drives derived from each of the three outcomes discussed earlier: returning the punt, fair catching the punt, or letting an untouched punt bounce and roll. Observing the bouncing punt values in blue reveals that teams should not attempt to return or fair catch punted balls anywhere within roughly their own 10 yard line. It is at this point on the field where returning the punt becomes the optimal play due to the lower probability of the ball bouncing into the end zone for a touchback and the lessened consequences in terms of expected points scored for the opponent if a turnover were to occur during the return.
While fielding a punt carries with it the risk of either muffing the punt or fumbling the ball over to the opposition, this factor is mitigated by the yardage gained during a turnover-free return as well as the possibility of scoring points on the return itself. A fair catch attempt will result in that punt being muffed and turned over to the opponent about 1% of the time; punt returns are muffed and/or fumbled and lost to the opponent with roughly 1.5% frequency. These factors combined with the frequency of punt return touchdowns (0.1%) and the average expected points added in the wake of a turnover-free return (.5 points) allow for an equation to take shape. Take the following example which details the likely outcome of returning a punt from one’s own 5 yard line:
Expected Points for ensuing drive starting with return from own 5 yard line =
(.984 * [.55 + .5]) + (.001 * 7) – (.0015 * [5.52-0.55]) = .97 points
On average simply letting the ball bounce at this point on the field will lead to .25 points more than attempting a return.
When it comes to returning punts, the optimal outcome in terms of points scored seems to result from letting balls bounce anywhere inside the 10 or 11 yard line. If a punt is to be fielded from outside of this region, returners should increase their frequency of actually returning punted balls as opposed to calling for the fair catch.
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