The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With the successful onside kick now a relic, the NFL will reconsider the fourth-and-15 proposal

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker tries an onside kick during a playoff game against the Chargers last season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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With the successful onside kick becoming all but extinct in the NFL, the league plans to reconsider in the offseason a measure that would give a team the opportunity to convert what amounts to a fourth-and-15 play to retain possession late in games.

The proposal was rejected by NFL owners last offseason after being introduced by the Denver Broncos. BBut getting owners to accept a significant rule change can be a gradual process, and a person familiar with the situation said this week that league leaders and the rulemaking committee “will revisit the Denver proposal” after this season.

NFL won’t add a fourth-and-15 alternative to the onside kick, as owners reject proposal

NFL teams have recovered only one of 29 onside kick attempts this season. That’s even worse than last season’s 4-for-52 success rate in the aftermath of the NFL making safety-related modifications to its kickoff rules.

Those changes have had the intended effect of making kickoffs safer, NFL officials have said. But they also have made it nearly impossible for a team to regain possession by recovering an onside kick.

In 2017, before the new kickoff rules were enacted, NFL teams were successful on 11 of 57 onside kicks. That’s a success rate of 19.3 percent. With the new rules, that has been reduced to 6.2 percent. This season, it’s 3.4 percent.

Successful onside kicks
Success Rate
20 percent
16.1 percent
13.6 percent
13.3 percent
19.3 percent
7.7 percent
3.4 percent

Source: NFL

The NFL certainly is not interested in reversing a safety-related change, particularly not one that’s working. The league once viewed the kickoff as the sport’s most dangerous play. Decision-makers have said that’s no longer the case, with that distinction now belonging to punts.

So the issue has become whether the onside kick should be replaced and, if so, how. The Broncos made their attempt last offseason, proposing that a team could — once per game and only in the fourth quarter — opt to attempt to retain possession by converting a fourth-and-15 play from its 35-yard line instead of kicking off. If the team gets a first down, it keeps the ball and continues the drive. If not, its opponent takes possession at the spot at which the play ends.

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The team taking the fourth-and-15 chance would have to state its intention beforehand and could not change its mind even if it is penalized on its initial attempt.

Some NFL owners regarded the proposal as a gimmick that was too nontraditional for their liking.

“What are we, the Arena Football League?” New York Giants co-owner John Mara said in March at the annual league meeting in Phoenix, at which the Broncos’ proposal was considered.

The measure had some support. The competition committee voted, 7-1, to endorse the Broncos’ proposal, with Mara dissenting. But at a league meeting at which owners, coaches and others were consumed with the rule change that made pass interference reviewable by instant replay, the fourth-and-15 proposal failed to generate the votes necessary for ratification.

The fourth-and-15 idea once was considered an alternative if the NFL was going to ban the kickoffs entirely. A team could have punted the ball away or tried for a first down. But now that the kickoff has been made safer, talk of eliminating it from the sport has dissipated.

The Broncos’ plan would not even take the onside kick out of the game. A team still could opt to try one. It merely would give a team another option.

It remains to be seen whether the ever-decreasing success rate of onside kicks bothers owners enough for them to find an alternative. The NFL, after all, is having another prosperous season, with TV ratings on the upswing for a second straight year even amid a series of controversies. There’s little to no outcry from the football-watching public about onside kicks to prompt owners to act.

It’s unlikely that onside kicks will make a comeback under this set of kickoff rules, which regulate how teams line up and prevents would-be tacklers on the kicking team — those players who would recover an onside kick — from getting a running start before the ball is kicked. The idea is to reduce the number of violent, high-speed collisions that made the play so hazardous. But eliminating that running start also has made the recovery of an onside kick a rarity.

Owners will have to decide how much that matters to them, if at all.

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