Photo via Dean Rutz/TNS
The Philadelphia Eagles have proposed to the competition committee a new rule that would change onside kicks dramatically. Instead of an onside kick, where a team can recover it after the ball goes at least 10 yards, a team would attempt a 4th and 15 from their own 25-yard line. If they convert it, they keep moving the ball. If they don’t, then the other team would take possession where the play ended.
Before I offer my take on the proposal, let us look at the statistics of each side. Following the 2017 season in which 13 out of 60 (21.7 percent) onside kicks were recovered by the kicking team, the NFL changed the rules to increase player safety. On all kickoffs, a running start is no longer allowed and that decreased the likelihood of onside kicks being recovered. In 2018, only four out of 53 (7.5 percent) onside kicks were successful, and in 2019, seven out of 56 (12.5 percent) were successful. The main reason the percentage went up was on Thanksgiving night. Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo converted back-to-back onside kicks against the New Orleans Saints.
Now, let’s look at the rate of 4th and 15. From 2015-19, teams were seven out of 29 (24.1 percent) and in 2019 alone, two out of seven (28.6 percent). In 4th and 15 or longer, teams were 21/121 (17.4 percent) from 2015 and in 2019, teams were six of 26 (23.1 percent).
After looking at the data, one may conclude several takeaways. Statistically, it is easier to convert a 4th and 15 than it is to convert an onside kick with the new rules. Also, the rate of converting a 4th and 15+ is higher than the current onside kick rules.
The Eagles’ rule proposal makes sense. When the game is on the line, you want to see the best players keep the game alive and inevitably determine its outcome instead of the special team members that rarely see the field otherwise. However, 4th and 15 is too short and it is not fair to every team. A high-flying passing attack like the Kansas City Chiefs’ can easily convert that while run-dominant teams such as the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans would have a much harder time converting it. These are Super Bowl 54 MVP Patrick Mahomes’ thoughts on it.
The point of onside kicks is a difficult, but doable way to regain possession when one is trying to come back in the game. I don’t think the offense should handle onside kicks as it’s not fair to every team and it takes out the great equalizer, special teams. Special teams are the third facet of the game and have determined championships one way or another. I would not take that out when the game is on the line.
My proposal is simple: return onside kicks back to normal.
Teams must indicate that they are doing an onside kick, and, in that case, running starts are allowed. If a team kicks it off deep after indicating an onside kick, they would be assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. This way, kickoffs are still safer and onside kicks are still difficult but more doable just like they used to.