8. Return every kick (out of the endzone): Touchbacks that are not kicked through the endzone are silly. If a player returns a kick out of the endzone and does not make it his own 20 yard line, he did not make a bad decision. It is always a smart decision to return a kick that was caught in the endzone. The NFL average for kickoff returns in 2008 was 22.8 yards.
In general, this seems to indicate that a kick returner as deep as three yards into the endzone should "expect" to at least match the result of a touchback. But the trick is variance. On a touchback, the offense gets to the 20 and nothing else. There is a zero chance of a scoring on the play. On a return, there is a chance for anything to happen including a greater than zero chance of scoring.
The negative implications of falling short of that average, are minimal. The design of the play makes for a very low probability of a return within the team's ten yard line (where there can be severe negative implications like increasing the likelihood of a safety). A return to the 11-19 yields almost exactly the same probability of scoring on the drive as a touchback. At worst, the team has to pick up another first down on the way to the endzone. So why not at least give the returner a chance to break through and gain yards well past the 20 (and maybe even score)?
Paul Bessire is the Senior Quantitative Analyst and Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!