NFL

Here’s Why Onside Kicks in the NFL Might Never Look the Same

An upstart football league managed to attract the attention of the venerable NFL with a rule that could add excitement to the closing minutes of a game and cut back the number of instances that a dangerous but legal play is attempted.

Surprisingly enough, the innovation that could replace onside kicks originated not with the new XFL, which is midway through its inaugural season but rather with the Alliance of American Football, which folded last year before completing its first season.

Onside kicks have become less dangerous but less successful

The NFL is scheduled to hold its annual league meetings March 29 through April 1 in Palm Beach, Florida. The agenda includes a review of proposed changes to rules submitted by the league’s 32 teams.

One proposal likely to generate a lot of discussion is the alternative to onside kicks that was made available to the teams in the 2020 Pro Bowl. That rule allowed a team that scored a touchdown or field goal to get the ball back immediately without having to execute a successful onside kick.

The onside kick has always been a low-percentage play for teams desperate to get the ball back following a score, but the success rate of 10.4% over the past two seasons is in historically low territory. Teams have been stymied by a rule against running starts and one that prevents them from stacking a side of the field with their coverage squad.

How would the alternative to onside kicks work?

The proposal to be studied would allow teams to attempt onside kicks under the existing rule or try getting the ball back by running an offensive play from its own 25 and gaining at least 15 yards. If the play works, the team would continue possession with a fresh set of downs.

The Alliance of American Football version of the rule was slightly different in that it required a 12-yard pickup on a snap from the 28-yard-line and could only be attempted in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.

The Denver Broncos proposed making it one play from the 25-yard-line last year, only allowing teams the option to attempt one per game, but the idea was turned down. The Philadelphia Eagles revived the proposal this year, setting the line of scrimmage at the 25 to make failed attempts more punitive.

The play being proposed is comparable to a third-and-15 or fourth-and-15 snap, which Pro Football Reference reported had a 14% success rate in the 2019 NFL season. That makes it easier than attempting the traditional onside kick without turning the play into a gimme.

What other significant rule changes will the NFL consider?

NFL owners will be asked to take a fresh look at the rule change they made last year expanding the definition of blindside blocks. That change resulted in penalties being called for seemingly insignificant contact far from the ballcarrier.

They’ll reconsider last year’s decision to not add a booth umpire or “sky judge” despite overwhelming support for the idea by head coaches and also take up the topic of whether to return overtime periods to 15 minutes after shortening it to 10 minutes in 2017.

One innovation that could speed up play late in the first half and fourth quarter is to give the defense the option to start the clock on the referee’s signal if it declines an offensive penalty.