As the NFL looks for ways to start the season on time, team owners will consider a host of rule changes during a May 28 virtual meeting, including a proposal to give teams an alternative to the onside kick.
The proposal, put forth by the Philadelphia Eagles, would allow a team that is trailing to maintain possession after scoring if it converts a fourth-and-15 play from its 25-yard line. If the team gets at least 15 yards, it is awarded a first down and keeps the ball. If it isn’t successful, the team in the lead would take over possession from wherever the play ended. Last year, the Denver Broncos proposed a similar rule, but it failed to garner the 24 votes necessary for ratification.
Philadelphia’s proposal might have a better chance because of some tweaks. Under the new plan, the fourth-and-15 play would start at the 25-yard line instead of the 35, as Denver proposed. Also, a trailing team could do it twice per game, and in any quarter it chooses. Denver’s plan allowed one opportunity per game — and only in the fourth quarter. Denver also opened the gimmick to both teams; Philadelphia’s suggestion limits it to the trailing team.
The NFL’s competition committee is reportedly receptive to the idea after the success rate for onside kicks fell dramatically under new kickoff rules that were implemented in 2018. Under the current rules, players aren’t allowed to get a running start, which makes it more difficult to recover an onside kick. The recovery rate dropped from 24 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2018 before rising slightly to 13 percent in 2019. It had been as high as 27 percent in 2006.
Not only would an attempt on fourth and 15 provide added drama, it would also give the trailing team a better chance. Over the past 18 years, teams have converted 32 of 115 attempts in this scenario for a 28 percent success rate, per TruMedia. If we widen the parameters to include third and 15 (a decent proxy, given a team would normally punt on the ensuing fourth down if it wasn’t trailing late), the success rate drops to 18 percent (470 for 2,580), but that’s still an improvement over the traditional onside kick. Plus, the success rate on third and fourth down with 15 yards to go is more consistent year to year than the success rate of recovering an onside kick, further illustrating it is the better option.
If the rule passes, don’t expect attempts on fourth and 15 from the 25-yard line to become the norm unless the trailing team has little time left. An onside kick that occurs in a surprising situation, defined here as any time in the first, second or third quarter, has a much higher chance to succeed. Since 2002, the year the NFL expanded to 32 teams, teams recovered 88 of 182 onside kicks not occurring in the fourth quarter or overtime, making them close to a coin flip (48 percent). Onside kicks in the fourth quarter were recovered 12 percent of the time (105 of 846).
Plus, if the play fails, the opponent gets possession of the ball in dangerous territory. Since 2002, teams scored points (via a touchdown or field goal) almost three-fourths of the time on drives that started on the opponent’s 25-yard line. When a traditional onside kick fails, the opponent typically starts at the 45-yard line, which drops the rate of scoring to less than half the time.
|2002 to 2019||Points per drive||TD rate||FG rate||Scoring rate|
|Start at opponent’s 25-yard line||3.7||37 percent||36 percent||73 percent|
|Start at opponent’s 45-yard line||2.4||24 percent||22 percent||46 percent|