On Thursday, NFL team owners will meet virtually to discuss potential rule changes. No proposal has garnered more attention than a proposal from the Philadelphia Eagles that will provide teams with an alternate to the onside kick. The rule would allow teams the option after a score to try and convert a fourth-and-15 play from their own 25-yard line. Convert, and the team keeps the ball at the place of conversion. Fail to convert, and the other team takes over on downs.
It’s a pretty drastic change, but one many teams believe is necessary after kickoff rules have caused onside kick recoveries to drop below 10 percent.
This week, the NFL introduced a couple of minor tweaks to the rule proposal to prevent any unintended consequences. So let’s break down the rule in its entirety.
The onside kick alternative can be used at any point in regulation after a scoring play. The team could be leading or could be trailing. However, a team would be limited to two uses per game. The alternative cannot be used in overtime.
All penalty enforcement is the same as any other scrimmage play. If there’s a defensive holding on the play, it’s an automatic first down and a conversion. If there’s a holding penalty on the offense, it’s becomes a fourth-and-25 play from the team’s own 15-yard line.
If the offense commits a penalty and it’s accepted, they cannot change their mind and kick off. They must proceed with the fourth-down conversion attempt. Also, no scrimmage kicks are allowed, which means no surprise punts for a team with a sudden change of heart.
Additionally, if a penalty occurs on the scoring play, it will be enforced before the onside kick alternative. For example, if the defense commits a personal foul penalty on a touchdown—which would normally push the kickoff up 15 yards—it will now push the fourth-and-15 attempt up 15 yards to the 40-yard line.
The NFL added a stipulation that makes the play an untimed down. This is to close the loophole of a team that utilizes the play just to burn clock. For example, say a team scores a potential game-winning score, but there are still 10 seconds on the clock. A team may choose to use the onside kick alternative to simply run the rest of the time off the clock. But now that it is an untimed down, this play will run no time off the clock.
Conversion rate comparison
As previously mentioned, onside kick recovery rates had dropped below 10 percent thanks to new kickoff rules over the past two seasons. Prior to those rule changes, onside kicks were recovered 21 percent of the time in 2017. That was an abnormally high year, but the NFL officially said kick recoveries happened about 15-20% of the time in a given season.
So how often will teams convert on fourth-and-15? It appears the number will be significantly higher:
But one thing that is important to keep in mind is field position. A successful onside kick recover puts the team at least at their own 45-yard line, maybe closer. A fourth-and-15 conversion from the 25 puts the team at their own 40-yard line. It’s not a huge difference, but it also highlights the increased risk of the play.
A failed onside kick would put the opposing team around midfield. There’s still a chance to hold that team scoreless. A failed fourth-and-15 attempt, however, puts the opponent potentially at the 25-yard line—already in scoring position.
Still, there will undoubtedly be a significant increase in conversion rates, and that will likely result in some pushback in adopting the new proposal.
We’ll see what coaches decide in their meeting later in the week.