By: Edward Egros

touchdown

Special Teams Not as Special as They Used to Be

GoalpostsVirtually any football fan has heard cliche after cliche about the importance of special teams.  After all, why would they be called "special" if they were anything but?  There are too many instances of momentum being seized and lost because of an impressive kickoff return, devastating injuries affecting a team and the excitement caused by a game-winning field goal.  However, analytics suggest this phase of the game may not be as special as it once was.

Many data scientists have put together linear regressions weighting the importance of a team's offense, defense and special teams for the outcome of a game.  These models say special teams account for less than 20% of the overall effect to the outcome of a game.  
Some models suggest even less.  Winston (2009) put together a regression excluding any special teams variables in his book, Mathletics, and had an R^2 of .8733 and an adjusted-R^2 of .8577 (p. 129).

These models have been around for years, but only recently are we starting to see NFL teams deemphasize special teams:


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This figure represents the touchdowns scored from kickoff returns (red) and punt returns (blue) in the NFL since 2005.  Especially in the last three years, there have been fewer kickoff returns for touchdowns.  Some of this downward trend can be attributed to the league moving the ball to the 35-yard line to promote touchbacks.  Punt return touchdowns had a spike in 2011 and 2012, but have since leveled and do not have a discernible trend over time, positive or negative.  It still does not detract from the overall notion there are fewer points scored from this phase of the game.

What about extra points and field goals?  This past offseason, the league moved the extra point back 13 yards.  
It resulted in a reduction in successful extra point attempts, from 99.3% to 94.2%.  However, this amounts approximately to 80 missed extra point attempts over the course of an entire season for the entire league.  There are even fewer examples of this move affecting the outcome of a game, though one can make an argument with a notable example in the latest AFC Championship Game.  As for going for three, many agree it behooves teams not to kick field goals as frequently as they do.  Lately, there have been fewer field goal attempts.

Again, most of the theoretical research here has been around for a few years, but many successful NFL teams have now heeded the findings and do not invest as much in special teams as they once did.  While many will still pay for top-notch kickers and punt returners and have important reasons for doing so, we are seeing the NFL evolving to a more analytically based approach to the not-as-special special teams.