- NFL owners will vote on a new alternative to the onside kick.
- Instead of attempting an onside kick, teams would have the option of a fourth and 15 play from their own 25 yard line.
- The success of onside kicks has declined dramatically since kickoff rule changes in 2018.
Change doesn’t come quickly in the NFL and particularly to rule changes. The league likes to keep the competitive nature of the game the same and only grudgingly implements new ideas and innovations. There are times when their hand is forced by external circumstances (eg: the high incident of head injuries and concussions) but otherwise change is an anathema to the NFL braintrust.
This year, however, there’s at least one rule change that has a chance to gain approval. And we’re not talking anything like ‘social distancing’ or anything else mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philadelphia Eagles have proposed a rule change that would provide teams with an alternative option in an onside kicking situation. The idea is simple but interesting: instead of trying to recover an onside kick, teams would get the option to convert a fourth-and-15 play from their own 25 yard line. If they get enough to make the first down they keep possession and their drive continues. If they fail to get the necessary 15 yards the opposing team takes over at the spot the play ended.
The measure will be up for a vote at the next NFL owners meeting to be held virtually on May 28. Also under consideration is a preseason experiment with the officiating team that would add a sky judge (or ‘booth umpire’) and a technology adviser. Even if these changes don’t get approved for regular season use they’ll likely still get a preseason tryout. Rule changes require approval from 24 of the league’s 32 owners.
Significant rule changes usually fare poorly when facing the full body of NFL owners though the onside kick alternative is given some chance of passing. For one, it’s not as crazy or ‘game changing’ as the Indianapolis Colts 9 point touchdown scheme of 2015. More significantly, the onside kick alternative has strong support within the competition committee. Last year, the Denver Broncos proposed a similar rule and the committee gave it a 7-1 thumbs up vote. The full ownership voted against the onside rule change last year.
They might be willing to reconsider after another year of declining success for onside kicks. The NFL implemented new kickoff rules for the 2018 season and among other revisions players aren’t allowed to get a running start on the kickoff. This makes it exceedingly difficult to recover an onside kick. In 2017, the kicking team recovered 21.7% of onside kicks. That dropped to 7.5% in 2018 and 12.5% last year. The fourth and 15 plan could get the numbers back up to where they were in 2017. In 2019, NFL teams went 2 for 7 on fourth and 15 situations for a 28.6% conversion rate. In the previous five seasons they went 7 for 19 or 24.1%.
The rule would be similar to one used in the short lived Alliance of American Football (AAF) which gave teams the option of a fourth and 12 play from their own 12. The AAF version allowed teams to use this alternative if they were down by 17+ points or if they were trailing with less than five minutes left in a game. If nothing else, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes appears to like the concept.