When watching the NFL, audiences are frequently subjected to broadcasters debating the merits of kicking to or away from standout return specialists. These discussions never involve any data or quantitative reasoning. I would love to see some data/analysis on this subject, but I understand the inherent difficulty. That is, when a kicker or punter kicks away or squibs a kick, this is not an officially recorded statistic. Even defining these things is inherently problematic. Much like an error in baseball, an out-of-position return man can make a kicker appear to be kicking away.
I think the stupid debate and lack of any substantive analysis go hand in hand. Guys like Jaworski pipe on about how they would never kick to Hester. Thinking in stupid binary categories like always/never and not considering different ways to "not kick" to someone and game state make the whole conversation a non-starter. I have always thought that the "not kicking to" position was rather empty. I assumed this because people tend to underestimate the impact of what they don't see. Coughing up field position kick after kick obviously adds up, but goes unnoticed, while a ball taken to the house leaves an imprint.
My aim here is to make a basic case and then open up the discussion. Let's consider Hester since he is probably the best returner ever and as such provides a good upper bound on the dangers of kicking to a great returner. I understand that most of his success came very early on and he has cooled considerably since then. One could chock this up to early luck, changes in the other S/T personnel or scheme, teams shifting to kicking away from him, his taking on a bigger role in the offense, etc. We'll just go with it.
To keep it simple I am lumping together kicks and punts. Hester scored on about 4.7% of the kicks he saw. Or a bit less than 1 in 20. That calculation took about 10 seconds to do, is that really just too technical for the talking heads? How much field position does kicking away cost in general? We are out on a limb a bit, but let's say 10 yards. That means kicking away sacrifices 200 yards per TD prevented. Since these are usually going to be comparatively cheap "between the 20s" yards, and great returners usually mix in long non-scoring returns with their TD's, it ends up being pretty close..
I think the conclusion is that it just isn't that clear cut. It is never surprising when supposed experts speak matter-of-factly about something no one really understands all that well, but I can't say how refreshing it would be if a broadcaster mentioned this sort of simple back-of-the-envelope stuff and admitted that it is not a cut and dry question. Said commentator could then give their view (ultimately coaches have to call something) and provide a psychological motivation.
Returning to the question motivating the post, a question we will certainly hear posed this weekend, what should opponents do? I am going to ahead and say that I would much prefer our opponents kick to Leon. Leon has brought back about 4% of the kicks sent his way (I know different S/T personnel), so about aligned with the analysis above. However, since our offense sort of sucks right now, I question how much a dozen or so yards of field position really matter. They will improve our expected points significantly only in relative, not absolute terms. On the other hand, a TD, is absolutely worth 6-8 points. Opposing defense vs. S/T coverage unit would clearly be a factor as well. Anyhow, this post is long enough, what do y'all think?