Brian Mitchell Says the NFL is Doctoring the K-Balls, and He Might Not Be Crazy


Brian Mitchell, the career leader in kick return and punt return yards, was interviewed by the Buffalo News over the weekend. Mitchell is not happy with many of the changes to his former specialty in the league, and says that the league has thrown “smoke screens” about safety. He also makes another allegation: that the league could be doctoring the “K-balls” used for kicking.

Mitchell told The Buffalo News he sees clues of a conspiracy to induce more touchbacks. He suggested the NFL is fiddling with the K-balls that are used only for kicks and punts.

. . .

There are guys that couldn’t kick the ball in the end zone when they were kicking from the 30,” Mitchell said. “Now they’re at the 35 and kicking it out of the end zone. Is it leg strength, or are the footballs doctored up now?”

Let’s adjust our tin foil hats and see if there is any evidence that would suggest this. We’ll start with kickoffs. First, we will just go to basic numbers on kicking distance and number of kicks out of bounds on kickoffs over the last decade.

Here are the league totals for kicks Out of Bounds and average distance on kickoffs.

The average distance actually has not changed much since the two years before the kickoff rule change. What has changed is the number of kicks sailing out of bounds with the move of the kickoff spot. Kicks out of bounds are rare anyway. In 2010, they occurred on 1.6% of all kickoffs. This year, that is down to 0.6% of all kicks going out of bounds. Some of that is a function of moving up five yards. The same kick that would have bounced out just before the end zone pylon will now go out just on the other side.

How much of it is a function of improved ability to control the ball, which then allows for more power with better accuracy?

Let’s move on to the touchback data.

When the 2011 rules changes were announced, I looked back at what happened when the league went the other way and moved the kickoff location to the 30 yard line in 1994. I found veteran kickers who kicked on both sides of the rules change, and found the at the average change was a drop off of about 19% in touchback rate.

Now let’s compare that with what has happened with the most recent changes before the 2011 season. Here is a summary of all kickers who had at least 20 kickoffs in every year from 2009 to 2012, with their touchback rates for before the change, compared to after the move to the 35 yard line.

The average change has been a 29% increase, bigger than anticipated compared to the last round. For example, the bottom half of kickers at creating touchbacks, who continued to kickoff in 2011 and 2012, were able to average a touchback 40% of the time. That is very near the 46.5% that Morten Andersen had averaged in 1992 and 1993. The difference though, is that Andersen was still able to get touchbacks on 25% of his kicks when the line was moved back (at age 34 and 35).

So touchback rates are higher than expected? There are three factors for the kickoff: distance, trajectory or hang time, and accuracy. If kickers are able to get the same distance with better hang time and accuracy, it would lead to more touchbacks than just looking at the distance might suggest.

The amount of increase means we cannot rule out a change. The bigger piece of evidence, though, is what has happened on field goals since 2011.

Field goal rates have increased over time. (Mike Herman’s “Kickology” has great historical info on the kicking game). In 2013, kickers make a higher percentage of 50+ yard field goals than kickers in 1960 made on all kicks of less than 30 yards (65.1% vs. 61.5%).

Rules changes have impacted the success rates of field goals, from narrowing the hashes to changing the location of the goal posts. Specialization has had a dramatic impact, as kicking started to become a full time vocation as we approached the 70’s. The introduction of soccer style kicking revolutionized the game over a two decade period from the mid-sixties to mid-eighties. The first soccer style kicker was signed in 1964 (Pete Gogolak) and the last straight ahead kicker retired in 1986 (Mark Moseley). Weather and more indoor stadiums and manicured fields has played a role. Better, and year round training and focus on the job has made kickers better.

Most of those factors, though, would have already been present in 2011. In 2011, the same year as the kickoff rules changes were implemented, kickers made 64.3% of their kicks from at least 50 yards away, the highest rate ever. The previous five years, kickers had made 53.4% of the same kicks.

Not only were kickers making a higher rate, but coaches were far more willing to call for the longer field goals. Long field goals can be influenced by things like weather and the range of the kicker. In borderline cases, a coach might punt or go for it instead. Thus, you would think (all other things being equal) that if teams kicked in more borderline cases, the success rate would go down.

Success rates have gone up, and raw totals have gone up. In 2011, there were 140 attempts from 50 yards or beyond. A decade earlier, there had been 73, and the year before, there were 108.

We have seen plenty of young guns come in, guys like Blair Walsh, Justin Tucker, and Greg Zuerlein. Maybe that is playing a role. What you wouldn’t expect, though, is for guys to find the fountain of youth.

Here is a summary of the five oldest active place kickers in 2013, with their 50+ yard kicks in the last three years, compared to the previous decade (2001 to 2010).

The oldest kickers in the league have made more 50+ yard field goals in the last three years, than they collectively made in the entire previous decade. From 2001 to 2010, this group was slightly below average at making really long kicks (45%). Over the last three years, they have been an astronomical 74%.

Old kickers get to stick around because they are reliable. What they have not been, in the past, is long distance bombers as they age. Morten Andersen saw his attempts cut in nearly a third from beyond 50 yards as he entered his late thirties. Gary Anderson made exactly four from distance after turning 36.

Kicking numbers have far less teammate/opponent contribution than other aspects of football. Yes, there is the snap and hold, and there are the occasional blocks. Other than that, it comes down to the weather conditions, the kicker himself . . . and the ball. Either these kickers have discovered the Fountain of Youth, or something else has changed dramatically since 2011.

Brian Mitchell knows returns and the kicking game. Does he know something about the ball? I cannot outright dismiss it when kickers at age 37 or older are performing better than ever, by a pretty wide margin.