PHOENIX — When it comes to rule-change proposals, the NFL isn’t much for gimmicks. Owners are a mostly conservative group, and they’re unlikely to give much consideration to any measure that doesn’t take football as seriously as they take themselves and their league. This was, after all, known as the “No Fun League” for years.
So at first glance, the proposal put forth by the Denver Broncos to give a team a fourth-and-15 alternative to an onside kick might seem a bit too gimmicky for the owners. It would be a major break from tradition. It would be different and, perhaps, kind of fun. Doesn’t that spell doom when owners consider it at this week’s annual league meeting?
According to several people familiar with the league’s inner workings, the Broncos’ proposal was well received by the competition committee, which voted, 7-1, in favor of it. The one dissenting vote was by New York Giants co-owner John Mara.
“What are we, the Arena Football League?” Mara said Sunday.
The proposal stands at least an outside chance of generating the 24 votes needed among the 32 teams for it to be ratified and take effect next season.
“There’s support for it,” one of those people said. “It has a chance. People liked it.”
There’s no way of knowing how the conversation will go behind closed doors once owners take up any proposal. That’s why it’s unclear what will happen this week with instant replay, even with the NFL under considerable pressure to do something — anything — to tweak it in the aftermath of the botched pass interference call in the NFC championship game that put the Los Angeles Rams, rather than the New Orleans Saints, in the Super Bowl.
But it appears that the fourth-and-15 proposal will not be rejected out of hand as some proposals made by teams (rather than by the competition committee) are.
To review, the Broncos’ proposal would give a team the option, once per game and during the fourth quarter only, to try to retain possession by converting what amounts to a fourth-and-15 play from its 35-yard line. The team would have to state its intention beforehand and could not punt on that fourth down or change its mind even if it was, say, given a 10-yard holding penalty on the initial try.
The proposal comes at a time when onside kicks have become nearly impossible for the kicking team to recover under the NFL’s new safety-related rules. There were only four successful onside kicks this past season.
The new rules were put in place before the 2018 season in what amounted to a last-ditch attempt to keep the kickoff from being eliminated entirely. League leaders had called the kickoff football’s most dangerous play. And the new rules seemed to work. Concussions suffered by players on kickoffs were down 35 percent this past season, according to the NFL’s injury data. The league also said that the punt has supplanted the kickoff as football’s most perilous play, both in terms of concussion rates and overall injury rates.
But the new rules, which include the elimination of players on the kicking team getting a running start, have made pulling off a successful onside kick considerably tougher.
The fourth-and-15 proposal, sometimes credited to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, once was considered a potential replacement for the kickoff. A team could have chosen to try for a first down or punt the ball away.
Now, under the Broncos’ proposal, it is merely an alternative, and the kickoff stays in the game. A team faced with a late-game deficit has the option of attempting an onside kick or trying for a fourth-and-15 first down.
It would add strategy by providing that alternative. It might give hope to a team — and its fans — when trailing late. It would add some intrigue.
The next step is to find out just how intrigued NFL owners are.