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4th and 15: Why this rule change is a must in the NFL

Change is good.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

When the NFL changed the rules of the onside kick, their heart was in the right place as it served to protect players from getting hurt. Overloading players to one side and allowing them to get a running start before they come crashing together certainly posed a threat to players safety. The league addressed this concern by implementing a rule change in 2018 to reduce the punishment of these plays by forcing the kicking team to have even amount of players on each side, and only allowing a one-yard “running” start.

While the rule is meaningful for players safety, it essentially rendered the play meaningless. With a 21% success rate in 2017, it dropped significantly to just 6% in 2018 with the new rule in effect. Teams went from having a one in five shot at recovering an onside kick to a one in 17 chance, which presented a hopeless feeling to any team relying on that play to have a shot to comeback in a game. The success rate did improve slightly from four out of 53 (2018) to seven out of 56 (2019) last season, but it got a boost from trickster kicker Younghoe Koo of the Atlanta Falcons who converted three in one game against the New Orleans Saints (however, one nullified by a penalty).

While the onside kick provides such a long shot chance at conversion, an idea has been passed around that would allow teams to instead attempt a 4th-and-15 play from their own 25-yard line. If they convert, possession continues and they can proceed in mounting their comeback. If they don’t, it would be a turnover on downs wherever the play ended. NFL owners will be voting on this proposed rule change on Thursday, and it would need 75% approval to pass and go into effect for the 2020 season.

Such a play would dramatically increase the chances a trailing team has to get back in the game. Since 2015, the conversion rate of 4th-and-15 plays are 24% (7 out of 29). This is a considerable difference than the onside success rate, and brings it back closer to the original success rate of the onside kick. If you’re a numbers guy, this certainly seems like an adequate solution in keeping the end of the game more relevant than it is right now. Sure, it’s still a low percentage play, but at least a team would have a fighting chance. And who knows - some good things have been known to happen on 4th-and-15.

This idea is a spin-off of what the Alliance of America Football used, where they substituted a fourth-and-12 play for the onside kick. This option was only permitted if a team was trailing by 17 or more points of if they were behind with under five minutes in the game. As for the NFL, this option would be available after any score at any point in the game. It even can be used following a safety. The only restriction is that teams would only be allowed to use this option up to two times in a game. Teams would still allowed to attempt an onside kick whenever they wanted, but those instances may present more of a surprise element, which may increase their chances of being converted.

This rule was offered to the owners last year, but they voted against it, so we shouldn’t be holding our breath that it passes this time around. With another year of moaning and groaning about how terrible the current onside kick is, who knows - maybe this time around it has a shot to pass.


How would you vote if you were an NFL owner?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    No change, keep the current onside rule how it is
    (380 votes)
  • 74%
    4th-and-15, let’s do it!
    (1129 votes)
1509 votes total Vote Now

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