The NFL is waging a war against the inherent physical dangers of football. So consider the recent drop in NFL onside kick recovery percentage collateral damage.
The root of the recent changes to the kickoff process in pro football is the NFL’s effort to make what statistically is the most dangerous play in the sport less perilous. The league claimed concussions suffered on kickoff plays dropped 35 percent in 2018 after it tweaked the rules in the name of player safety. Yet the onside kick recovery rate dropped even more than the concussion rate.
DeCOURCY: What’s so wrong with the latest onside kick rule change proposal
In large part because of the rule changes (more on those below), there were only five surprise onside kick attempts in 2018 as opposed to the league average 9.4. Onside kicks in 2018 were successful 6 percent of the time as opposed to 21 percent the year prior, though the rate recovered to 12.7 percent last season.
This is why teams like the Cowboys have gotten creative with their onside kick procedures. They were able to beat the Falcons in Week 2 this season thanks to an onside kick style for which Atlanta clearly had not prepared; a slow-rolling football on the ground rather than the more common high-bounce method teams now have a harder time recovering.
Below is more about the NFL kickoff rules that have impacted the recovery percentage of onside kicks, plus a recent rule change proposal that would abolish the onside kick as we know it.
NFL onside kick rules in 2020
Two aspects of the NFL’s rule changes for kickoffs in 2018, which are still in place in 2020, directly impacted kicking teams’ ability to recover onside kicks. One is the fact that kicking teams can’t load one side of the field with extra players; there must be five kicking team members lined up on each side of the kicker, and at least two of them on each side must be lined between the numbers and the hash.
The other is the fact that kicking team members are no longer allowed to get a running start. They must line up on the 35-yard line and can’t run until the ball is kicked.
Additionally, the receiving team has to set up at least eight players in a new, 15-yard setup zone between the kicking team’s 45-yard line and its own 40. This decreases the likelihood of surprise onside kicks since so many return team members are forced into an area so close to the neutral zone.
The NFL recently released the following animation that illustrates the difference between player movement in 2017 onside kicks (red) and 2018 onside kicks (blue). The running start and the extra player on the right side gives the 2017 players a clear advantage.
Below is the NFL’s official language on kickoff lineups:
1. Before the kicker approaches the ball and until the ball is kicked,
2. All kicking team players must be inbounds and behind the ball when it is kicked, except:
3. Until the ball is kicked, all receiving team (Team B) players must be inbounds and behind their restraining line, and at least eight players must be positioned between their restraining line and a spot 15 yards behind their restraining line (the “setup zone”).
The complete NFL rule book entry on kickoffs can be found here.
NFL onside kick rule change proposal
In an effort to give teams better chances of retaining possession after a score as opposed to the dying onside kick, the Broncos in the spring of 2019 proposed a rule change that would give scoring teams the option of using one fourth-and-15 play from their own 35-yard line per game. A conversion would allow the team to maintain possession.
Denver’s proposal in 2019 was not adopted, but in 2020, a new, similar proposal was made by the Eagles. This one would see a scoring team’s offense attempt to convert a fourth-and-15 play from its own 25-yard line in lieu of trying an onside kick. If the offense were to convert, it would keep the ball. If not, the defending team would take over at the dead ball spot.
The NFL determined that “Denver’s proposal (was) slightly more forgiving than the onside kick (note: we used only expected onside kicks in this calculation), although the differences (were) within a few percentage points. A perfect comparison for the historical onside play would be a fourth-and-17 scrimmage play.
“Although Denver suggested the 35-yard line — the same as where teams kick off — teams that pick up first downs on scrimmage plays typically gain more yards than just the line to gain. Teams converting on fourth-and-14 to fourth-and-16 typically end up eight yards past the line to gain when they convert. Our suggestion then will push offensive teams back 10 yards to their own 25-yard line.”
The latest fourth-and-15 alternative to the onside kick was not approved. According to NFL Media, the league’s team owners did not officially vote on the proposal, but they did take a show of hands during a virtual meeting, and it didn’t get the 24 of 32 in support it would need to pass.
“Owners decided it wasn’t the time to make the drastic change by implementing the fourth-and-15 option,” NFL Media reported. “It’s possible after further discussion that such a change could take place down the road.”
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