Yesterday, the NFL approved seven rule changes for the 2016 season, and today they approved two more. The owners approved the automatic ejection and 25-yard line touchback rules for the 2016 season on a one-year trial.
The automatic ejection will eject players who receive two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the same game, a short list of penalties that the owners choose from. The owners also approved moving the starting field position from the 20 yard line to the 25 yard line after touchbacks on kickoffs. Both rule changes were approved on a one-year trial basis for the 2016 season, in large part due to negative reaction from coaches and others to the proposed changes.
While the first rule likely won't have a huge impact (it's a very rare scenario in which a player would have been ejected under this rule in recent seasons), the second one will have very significant implications for every team, and that includes the Colts.
Over the past several seasons, Pat McAfee has been one of the NFL's best kickoff specialists, able to consistently and routinely get the ball into the end zone for a touchback. In fact, in 2015, the Colts' touchback percentage of 85.0% was the highest by a team in an NFL season since 1970. Furthermore, the 156 total kick return yards that the Colts allowed last year set a new NFL record for the fewest kick return yards allowed in a single season. So while this rule change will impact every NFL team, it's safe to say that it could have an even bigger impact on the Colts.
The NFL passed this rule as an effort to continue eliminating kickoff returns, but in a move that should surprise no one, the NFL's plan actually could backfire. It's expected that this rule change - which would give teams an additional five free yards simply for taking a touchback - will instead prompt teams and kickers to not put the ball into the end zone as much. Rather than doing that, kickers will likely kick more short, high kicks that fall somewhere inside the ten yard line, forcing a return. In doing so, the coverage could be closer to the returner when he receives the ball, in which case the collisions on kickoffs may actually go up rather than down.
For his part, though, Pat McAfee isn't expecting to change his strategy anytime soon: he's still planning on putting the ball into the end zone for touchbacks.
Only a 1% better chance of scoring from 25 than from 20.. From a strategy point.. Imma bat a 1000 on touchbacks this year #ColtsNation— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) March 23, 2016
We'll see whether the Colts' defense and whether Chuck Pagano agrees with McAfee's strategy or not, but regardless, this is a rule that doesn't make a ton of sense for the NFL to pass.