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
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.
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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