Few plays in the NFL have as low a success rate as the onside kick, especially after a recent rule change eliminated running starts for the kicking team. As a result, only 12.7% of attempts so far this season were recovered by the kicking team: out of 63 times teams tried to kick onside to steal a possession, just eight were successful (the other 55 attempts, meanwhile, included both by the New England Patriots’ Jake Bailey).
The league has apparently recognized that recovering an onside kick is near impossible, and it seems that it is looking for an alternative option. One will be tried out at the Pro Bowl — a game that does not have any kickoffs — this weekend, as was announced on Tuesday: teams that have scored either a touchdown (plus extra point/two-point try) or a field goal will have an option to attempt a fourth-and-15 in order to keep possession of the football.
Per NFL Operations, the rule is worded as follows:
At any point in the game, after a successful field goal or the conclusion of a Try attempt, the scoring team, (Team A), has the following two options:
1. Team A may elect to give Team B the ball at the B25-yard line, first-and-10, beginning a new series of downs. If this option is elected, all normal penalty enforcement principles will apply; or
2. Team A may elect to take the ball at its own 25-yard line, (A25), fourth-and-15. If Team A is successful in making a first down, Team A will maintain possession, and a new series of downs will continue, as normal. If Team A is unsuccessful in making a first down, the result will be a turnover on downs, and Team B will take possession at the dead ball spot (after enforcement of any applicable fouls).
As can be seen, the two teams participating in the Pro Bowl will have the option to either give the opponent the ball at its own 25-yard-line — a de facto touchback on a non-existent kickoff — or to attempt a fourth-and-15 at their own 25 to keep possession as an onside kick substitute. The latter certainly seems to have the potential to be implemented as an alternative for a low-percentage onside attempt at one point in the future.
Statistically speaking, after all, converting a fourth-and-15 is far more likely than recovering an onside kick. Since the aforementioned rule changes eliminating running starts on kickoffs have been implemented in 2018, only 10.1% of onside kicks (12 of 119) have been recovered by the kicking team. Meanwhile, five of 14 fourth-and-15 attempts have been converted by the offense in the same time-span for a success rate of 35.7%.
The rule implementation for the Pro Bowl is not the first time an offensive play as a substitute for an onside kick is being brought up. The Denver Broncos proposed a rule change with a similar idea just last year: teams would attempt a fourth-and-15 at their own 35-yard line instead of kicking onside, but each team would only be allowed to a) attempt this play once per game and b) attempt it exclusively in the fourth quarter of games.
The Broncos’ rule change proposal was voted down by the league’s owners, but obviously a modified idea has gained some momentum now. It will therefore be interesting to see how the play actually looks like on the field and whether or not it will be up for debate once again when the NFL’s annual league meeting gets kicked off on March 29.
The possible onside kick alternative is not the only rule change that will be tried out at the Pro Bowl as officials will also use a different set of rules to judge false start penalties against flexed-out receivers:
[A] flexed, eligible receiver in a two-point stance who flinches or picks up one foot, as long as his other foot remains partially on the ground, and he resets for one second prior to the snap. A receiver who fits this exception is not considered to be “in motion” for purposes of the “illegal shift” rules.
Essentially, no illegal shift will be called against a wideout in case he flinches or lifts a foot off the ground if he subsequently resets for one second and keeps one of his feet on the ground throughout the process.