The NFL offseason is not just the time for teams to re-group and start building their rosters for the challenges that lie ahead, it is also when the league’s rule book gets modified. Both the competition committee and the 32 teams have the option to submit potential changes, and while some of them are borderline silly (see: Baltimore Ravens’ jersey vests to mark ineligible receivers as eligible), some have good chances of eventually getting adapted.
This year, seven proposals were submitted and one stands out in particular because it would alter one of the lowest-percentage plays in football, the onside kick. The Philadelphia Eagles submitted it with the goal of giving teams an alternative to kicking onside:
By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 6, Section 1, Article 1, to provide an alternative to the onside kick that would allow a team who is trailing in the game an opportunity to maintain possession of the ball after scoring (4th and 15 from the kicking team’s 25-yard line).
Few plays in the league 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 during the 2019 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 actively looking for an alternative option. The Eagles’ proposal could therefore be popular among teams, especially considering that it was already implemented earlier this year at the Pro Bowl: teams that scored either a touchdown (plus extra point/two-point try) or a field goal had the option to attempt a fourth-and-15 play in order to keep possession of the football.
During the Pro Bowl, only one such play was attempted: Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins tried to gain the 15 yards necessary for the NFC but was intercepted by Baltimore Ravens safety Earl Thomas (even though a knock-down would have been the better option in this particular scenario). Still, the potential of the play as an alternative for the onside kick was on full display during the exhibition contest.
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 the fourth-and-15 success rate over the same time frame was 35.7% (5 of 14; not counting the Pro Bowl).
The Eagles, by the way, are not the first team aiming to implement this onside kick alternative: 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.
The six other rule changes proposed, meanwhile, look as follows:
By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7, to modify the blindside block rule to prevent unnecessary fouls.
By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 15, Section 2, to make permanent the expansion of automatic replay reviews to include scoring plays and turnovers negated by a foul, and any successful or unsuccessful Try attempt.
By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 16, Section 1, to restore preseason and regular season overtime to 15 minutes and implement rules to minimize the impact of the overtime coin toss.
By Miami; to amend Rule 4, Section 3, Article 2, to provide the option to the defense for the game clock to start on the referee’s signal if the defense declines an offensive penalty that occurs late in either half.
By Baltimore and Los Angeles Chargers; to amend Rule 19, Section 2, to add a “booth umpire” as an eighth game official to the officiating crew.
By Baltimore and Los Angeles Chargers; to amend Rule 19, Section 2, to add a Senior Technology Advisor to the Referee to assist the officiating crew.
The proposals will be voted on during the NFL’s spring meetings in Palm Beach, Florida starting on March 29. For a rule change to be adopted, 24 of the league’s 32 teams will have to vote in favor of it.