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The NFL recognizes that onside kicks are currently a problem. With the new kickoff rules where players cannot get a running start, onside kicks are very difficult to recover.
But the league wants teams that are trailing to have an opportunity to get the ball back after score. Of course they do because that increases drama and excitement. As fans, we want that too.
Last year, only 5% of onside kicks were recovered by the kicking team. There was a spike in 2021 where 16% of kicking teams recovered, but the prior season it was 4%.
Since the kickoff rule changed in 2018, only 27 onside kicks have been recovered in five regular seasons. That’s just 9% of the 293 attempts.
Prior to the rule change, 15% of onside kicks were recovered by the kicking team in the previous five regular seasons. That means recoveries are down 40%. Yes, that’s a problem.
Other football leagues, like the XFL and USFL, have implemented some kind of “fourth-down-like” play to allow teams to get the ball back. The Philadelphia Eagles proposed a “4th & 20” play to replace the onside kick.
However, the NFL decided not to move forward just yet.
The problem with bringing the “4th & 20” play to the NFL
I like the idea of replacing the onside kick with an offensive play to retain possession. However, I do not like the 4th and 20 proposal. There are a few reasons for my position.
First, I don’t like the idea that the offense that just scored gets to run, essentially, the next offensive snap. They get possession of the ball and the entire field to work with. That’s probably my biggest gripe.
The offense is trying to gain 20 yards to retain possession, but the defense is forced to defend the entire field.
As far as the onside kick goes, as soon as the offense recovers, the ball is dead. Teams cannot further advance it. That’s how it should be. Allowing a team to potentially score a touchdown on a play that’s simply to determine possession goes against the spirit of the play.
Yes, the defense can score on an onside kick. But that’s part of the risk of attempting the play.
The other big issue is penalties. A defensive holding awards the team going for 4th & 20 an entirely new set of downs. The NFL has a refereeing problem — this would only exacerbate the problem.
There are enough issues with pass interference and roughing the passer, and no question those would come into play and immediately award the offense possession.
Plus, would stats on the possession play count? Does that just make it another offensive play? That’s well outside the spirit of football. You score a touchdown, you have to kickoff. Or something. Your offense doesn’t get to trot back on the field for another play.
There’s a better solution that should make — almost — everyone happy
My thinking is that the possession play — for lack of a better description — should be its own play. The stats shouldn’t count and points shouldn’t be at stake for the offense. Plus, a penalty shouldn’t guarantee possession.
So what to do. Simple: add a conversion play. The offense gets a play from the 15-yard line. If they get the ball into the endzone, they get possession at their own 25. If they don’t, the other team takes over at the failing team’s 40-yard line.
In this case, a penalty may award multiple attempts at the play, perhaps closer, but not guarantee possession. Pass interference in the endzone? Sure, run the play again from the 5-yard line. Or the one or two, whatever they want.
Defensive holding? Get another shot from the 10.
The play would be treated just like an extra point or two-point conversion — separate from the rest of the game. No stats accrued, expect maybe “possession play” conversions, or something like that.
This solves all of the problems. Penalties can play a role, but not be deciding factors. The defense only has to defend the endzone and not the entire field. Plus, the play would be incredibly exciting.
Maybe the 15-yard line is too far out. Perhaps the 10. The NFL wants the play to succeed at around a 15% rate. One play from the 10-yard line to get into the endzone feels like 15% is probably about right.
To me, though, the conversion play makes more sense than the “4th and 20” proposal.
What say you?
Follow Dan Zaksheske on Twitter: @RealDanZak