NFL's New Proposed Rule Change Could Totally Flip Games in 2020—and It's GreatMay 23, 2020
I have an uncle who is the definition of a casual NFL fan. He watches prime-time action when there's nothing else on television, makes a point to check out playoff games and wouldn't miss a Super Bowl. On several occasions, he's pointed out his frustration with the fact that trailing teams are severely limited—if not completely handcuffed—in the dying minutes of games.
Many of the peeps reading this have watched so much football that they have likely made peace with the fact that a leading team can win by kneeling three times to zap 120 seconds from the game clock against an opponent that is out of timeouts. But said advantage is frustrating when a game ends anticlimactically.
Something has to be done to compensate for the fact that the onside kick has recently become less than half as likely to succeed.
In 2009, Advanced Football Analytics determined that fourth-quarter onside kicks were successful about 20 percent of the time. It appears that rate dropped slightly for much of the 2010s, but it rose to 21 percent in 2017, according to Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.
But then the league introduced new rules regarding head starts and alignments on kickoffs in the name of safety, and only five of the next 79 onside kicks were recovered over the course of nearly two seasons.
A few kicking-team recoveries down the stretch in 2019 caused some redemption for the onside kick, but NFL.com's Judy Battista reported that the two-year rate is still just 10.4 percent.
That's not good for the product or the business itself. The NFL wants everyone to feel like they can't change the channel in the fourth quarter, and fans of trailing teams want an excuse to stick around. An enhanced shot at getting the ball back on offense would accomplish that.
That's likely why the league is considering replacing the onside kick with a 4th-and-15 play from the team in question's 25-yard line.
The change—which was proposed by the Philadelphia Eagles and will be voted on by owners next week—would give trailing teams a similar Hail Mary-type option to what they had before: Convert and you keep the ball and remain alive; fall short, and you're probably toast.
A similar revision was proposed last offseason but was voted down despite near-unanimous approval from the competition committee, per Mark Maske of the Washington Post. But this year, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported that "support for the idea is growing," while Battista noted that there's "some momentum" for the new proposal.
Is it gimmicky? It didn't look that way when the NFL tested it at this year's Pro Bowl. The NFC gave it a shot late in the fourth quarter when Kirk Cousins attempted a Hail Mary throw that was intercepted. It was a typical late-game desperation play, which is a lot less gimmicky than whatever the hell this was.
The short-lived Alliance of American Football used a similar protocol last year. How could anyone prefer an onside kick to this?
Plus, it's more likely to succeed.
According to NFL Operations, the success rate on 4th-and-15 plays between 2002 and 2018 was about 17 percent, but I'd expect momentum and defensive fatigue (a team would be going up against a D that just surrendered a touchdown) to drive that number above 20 percent.
But there would be other advantages beyond an increased chance of recovery. A play from scrimmage is more exciting. Onside kicks don't usually involve star players and often end anticlimactically when the ball is easily recovered by the receiving team or goes out of bounds untouched.
But in this case, you'd likely get to see the quarterback drop back and attempt another pass with the game on the line. Those guys make the big bucks for those type of moments, and fans would at least get another one instead of an awkward, bouncing kick that often results in a flag.
Debates would rage regarding whether it makes more sense to throw the ball 15-plus yards downfield or throw it underneath and hope to pick up the rest after the catch, and plays in the latter scenario would often give us dramatic sequences with outcomes that are less abrupt than what you get with onside kicks.
That alone is valuable, and the increased likelihood of getting the ball back would keep more fans engrossed.
Considering that the NFL is about as popular as ever, traditionalists will argue the league is trying to fix something that ain't broke. But good businesses remain that way because they continue to evolve to meet the changing desires of their customers.
Making a change like this wouldn't likely cost the NFL any fans, but it would result in more wild finishes and more "never say never" scenarios that would delight my uncle and millions of other passive customers like him—many of whom might merely be a wild comeback short of becoming fanatics.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.