The Extra Point

What data and analytics told us about 2021 Offseason NFL rules proposals

The 2021 NFL Playing Rule Proposals covered a variety of topics, including uniform numbers, overtime, and the instant replay review process. In mid-April, team owners will review and vote on each proposal. See how the NFL modifies or adopts new rules

In March, the Football Operations Data and Analytics group provided the league’s Competition Committee with evidence to help them better understand several Playing Rules Proposals. Here are two examples.

Proposal Number 2: By Competition Committee; to amend Rule 6, Section 1, Article 3, for one year only, to establish a maximum number of players in the setup zone.

Playing Rule Proposal Number 2, proposed by the NFL’s Competition Committee, would change the rules for formations on kickoffs. Currently, at least eight players — but as many as 11 — are allowed in the setup zone, a 15-yard long rectangular box that begins 10 yards from where the ball is being kicked off (see the 2018 kickoff rules proposal here). The Competition Committee, with the support of NFL special teams coaches, proposed capping the number of players allowed in the setup zone at nine.

The data group used the NFL’s Next Gen Stats to identify if changing this rule could help increase the chances for a kicking team to recover an onside kick.

This table shows the frequency with which receiving teams put additional players in the setup zone, both when expecting an onside kick attempt and when not. 

NUMBER OF PLAYERS IN THE SETUP ZONE, 2018-20

8

9

10

11

Expected Onside

0%

0%

87%

13%

Unexpected Onside

98%

<1%

1%

0%

On every expected onside kick attempt from 2018-20, the receiving team loaded the setup zone with at least 10 players, and 13% of the time teams put 11 players in the zone. Alternatively, on 98% of kicks where an onside attempt was unexpected, receiving teams lined up the minimum of eight players in the setup zone.

Given this evidence, the league is testing a rule change to determine if limiting the number of players in the setup zone to nine may lead to new onside kick strategies and formations, and in turn, could lead to more recoveries.

By Baltimore and Philadelphia; to amend Rule 16, Section 1, to change the options available to the winner of an overtime coin toss and create a true sudden-death format.

Playing rule proposal Number 8, proposed by Baltimore and Philadelphia, would change NFL overtime to a “spot and choose” format. In this proposal, overtime would return to a sudden-death format (first score wins) and the starting location for the offensive team’s line of scrimmage would be determined by the coin toss.

The winner of the overtime coin toss would determine if they want to be the spot team or the choose team. The spot team first determines where the ball will be spotted, then the choose team selects whether to start on offense or defense.

The data team looked at the rate with which offensive teams scored first in first-half game situations based on the starting line of scrimmage on which a drive began. As shown in the chart below, the “break-even” point — the spot where both the possession and defensive teams are equally likely to score next — is the possession team’s own 13-yard line.

Of course, other game conditions — weather, team strengths, and how accurate a team’s kicker is — would factor into team decisions under this overtime format. Overall, though, we'd expect most spot teams to choose near the 13-yard line.

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