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Hidden yardage: Lawrence Tynes and Touchbacks

The Giants have been sniffing around for a placekicker. And it has nothing to do with field goal accuracy. It is all about hidden yardage.

Former Giants’ head coach Bill Parcells came up with the theory of hidden yardage.  According to Parcells’  theory, every 100 yards in hidden yardage — through penalties, interceptions, punt and kickoff returns and field position following kickoffs — is worth 7 points. He contends that fewer than 100 yards in hidden yardage can be equal to a pro-rated percentage of 7 points. Thus, if you have, say, 50 yards more than the opponent by the end of the game in this phase, you should have an extra 3 to 4 points.  As chief decision maker of the Miami Dolphins,  Parcells is such a strong proponent of his hidden yardage theory.  In fact, two years ago, Parcells released kicker Jay Feely because of his short kickoffs.  Although Feely connected on 21 out of 23 field goals, his kickoffs were costing the Dolphins too many hidden yards.  At the time,  special teams assistant Keith Armstrong bemoaned the fact that in one game alone, Feely’s low and short kickoffs cost the Dolphins 80 yards of field position.  

Needless to say, just like Feely was discarded by the Dolphins, Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes’ job could be in jeopardy. Despite converting 27 out of 32 field goals which is an impressive 84 percent,  his short kickoffs and low number of touchbacks is the reason the Giants are thinking about adding another kicker to their roster. At this time, the Giants have Tynes and an unknown Sam Swank on their roster. However, after having a disappointing 8-8 season, head coach Tom Coughlin vowed he would look at everything to improve his team. Ostensibly, kickoffs is an area Coughlin has targeted.   First, the Giants had interest in former Cowboy Nick Folk.  Even though Folk worked out for the Giants, apparently, the Giants did not like what they saw.  Folk wound up inking a deal with the Jets. Subsequently, the Giants wanted to take a look at former Carolina kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd.  Before heading to the Meadowlands, Lloyd’s first and last stop happened to be in Minnesota.  Lloyd never made it to New Jersey.  Minnesota gobbled him up.  Since the Giants are looking to sign a kicker, let us take a look at Tynes’ touchback statistics. 

 In order to improve the distance on his kickoffs, during last year’s training camp, Tynes began lining up 7 yards behind the ball instead of his usual ten yards.  Hopefully, this adjustment would help improve his number of touchbacks.  Let us see if his gambit of moving up three yards increased his number of touchbacks.  Unfortunately, this did not help Tynes at all.  After charting his 83 kickoffs in 2009,  Tynes had just 6 touchbacks. Because he had five touchbacks, the Giants were ranked 24th in the league in touchbacks per game.  Since the Giants were ranked near the bottom of the league in this category, this is an area where there is opportunity for improvement.  Four of the top ten teams in this category made the playoffs.  Two of those teams, New Orleans and Indianapolis made it to the Super Bowl.  Clearly, the importance of having more touchbacks helps a team accumulate hidden yardage.  Oh by the way, Saints head coach Sean Payton was a protege under Bill Parcells. While working under Parcells, Payton understands the concept of having a productive kickoff specialist and its correlation to hidden yardage. Last year, in the fifth round of the draft, the Saints selected punter Thomas Morestead.  In addition to his punting, Morestead was their long distance kickoff specialist. Morestead finished second in the league in touchbacks with 27 just two behind league leader David Buehler of the Dallas Cowboys.  Recall, in Super Bowl XXIV, the Colts out gained the Saints by 100 yards. The Colts amassed 432 net yards while the Saints had 332 yards. However, the hidden yardage paints a different picture.  In hidden yardage, the Saints had plus differential of 102 yards. 

Saints’ hidden yards in Super Bowl XLIV:

Interception return : +74

Punt returns: +4

Penalties: +26

Kickoff returns: -9

Start of drives: +7

  As a result of accumulating more hidden yards, clearly, this was a difference maker.  And this helped the Saints win their first Lombardi trophy.   

While the NFL is a copy-cat league, teams like the Giants will want a kicker to place as many kickoffs into the back of the end zone for touchbacks. Brian Burke, creator of Advanced NFL Stats, examined the value of a touchback.  According to Burke, ten percent of all NFL kickoffs excluding onsides kicks are touchbacks.  He goes on, The average starting position following all kickoffs (including penalties on the play) is the 30 yd line. But the average starting position for all non-touchback kickoffs is the 32. The difference between a touchback an non-touchback is 12 yds. If the 32 seems a little far down the field to you (like it does to me), it’s because the median starting field position for non-touchbacks is the 27 yd line.

Is  a touchback  from the 20 yard line compared to an average of all non-touchback kickoffs  at the 32 yard line statistically significant?  Burke thinks so. An alternative way of thinking of those 12 yards is to think of them as one additional first down required for a team to score. It’s one more first down the offense will need to either score a TD or get into FG range. The average first down conversion rate in the NFL is 67%, so a touchback turns a TD drive into a FG drive or a FG drive into a punt 33% of the time.

Considering the data from Burke as well as Parcells’ hidden yardage theory, do you think the Giants should sign or draft a kickoff specialist?  If so, do you like or dislike the idea of carrying two kickers on an NFL roster?   Should Tynes keep his job?  What are your thoughts?