Image Credit: Joey Gannon
Yesterday, reports confirmed that for the second season in a row, the NFL had voted against replacing the onside kick with a 4th and 15 alternative. Under the new system, instead of opting to do an onside kick in an attempt to win the ball back, a team could opt to start with 4th & 15 on their own 25-yard line. There’s a lot to go through for people who don’t follow American Football, so I’ll explain everything.
The kickoff in American Football is similar to the kickoff in rugby union. The team who are starting the half or have scored kick to the opposition to start/resume the game. The onside kick comes from this as, like in rugby union, once the ball has been kicked a certain distance, either side can collect it and gain possession. In the NFL, a kickoff that goes 10 yards can be collected by either side and so the onside kick tends to be kickers hitting it just far enough so that it goes the required 10 yards in the hope that their team can collect the ball before the defence can. This has created some of the greatest and most memorable plays in the sport, it has been notably used in two different Super Bowls to open the second half, being a major contributor to the Saints winning the Super Bowl in 2010 and was used in one of my favourite games of the last decade between the Seahawks and Packers in the 2014 NFC Championship game. The onside kick has led to some of the more exciting and unbelievable plays in the NFL.
Not anymore, two years ago new safety regulations came in regarding kickoffs and onside kicks that have rendered the play next to useless. The offence now can’t run before the ball is kicked meaning they have no momentum when trying to reach the ball. There is now a specified formation for the kicking team to abide to, meaning they can’t stack their players on the side of the pitch the ball is going to go to. As a result, the onside kick is now almost completely useless, the success rate that was once near 20% is now down to 6%. In the last two years, NFL teams are 0-104 when depending on an onside kick to win the game. Essentially, if you need an onside kick to win the game, you’re not going to win the game.
Whilst this article was inspired by the onside kick rule not changing (again), I want to expand my scope, because there isn’t just enough grounds to kill the onside kick, we should be killing what creates the onside kick as well, the kickoff. The kickoff is fundamentally the most boring, dangerous, and meaningless play in American football. Replacing it with almost anything else would be better,
Let’s start with that first word I called it, “boring”. Think of a great kickoff that sticks in the memory. Wrong, you’re thinking of a punt (unless you’re thinking of Bills @ Jets 2017 or Titans @ Steelers 2013 but they’re only because of incompetence). Punts can be interesting, the kickoffs are not. The majority are touchbacks (where nothing happens, and the ball comes out to the 25-yard line) and the overwhelming majority end up between the 20 and 30-yard lines. Few go for touchdowns and even they aren’t that visually exciting, just stay in the middle and break to the sideline at the right time and well done, you’ve scored. The majority of kickoffs (and by that, I mean all but two, maybe like two more if you’re lenient) are just not interesting to look at and add nothing to the game.
Let’s address the next word, “dangerous”. It’s one thing for a play to be boring. The extra point is rarely interesting but I’m not calling for the death of that. What makes the kickoff worse is the fact that it might be the most dangerous play in American Football. American Football is a naturally dangerous sport, it’s safer now but there’s still inherent risk in playing the game. However, to hear that the most dangerous play of them all is the kickoff is still quite surprising. It does start to make sense when you think about what’s actually happening though. Two teams at opposite ends of the field start running towards each other and when they reach, they are pretty much at full speed, trying to push past the receiving team or to stop the kicking team. It’s why concussion rates are higher on the kickoff than on any other play. The touchback was an attempt to stop this but by the time to ball is stopped in the end zone, the dangerous stuff has already happened on the field.
But of course the kickoff is meaningful, you say as you read this. It’s obvious that starting further up the field means you have a higher chance of scoring. Yes, you’re right but not as right as you think. A video from Jon Bois titled ‘Kickoffs are Stupid and Bad’ analysed over 15,500 kickoffs between 2011 and 2016 and found that kickoffs that were returned between the 40 and 49-yard line (so nearly halfway) yielded 2.1 points on average per possession. Whilst a kick that went to the 25-yard line yielded 1.94 points per possession and a disastrous play that finished before the 10-yard line yielded 1.19 points per possession. There is some benefit to being higher up the field yes, but it’s nowhere near as big as you think. Weirdly, returns that finish between the 35 and 39-yard line were the most effective, yielding 2.37 points per possession. It might be a statistical anomaly but what you are seeing is that even if the kickoff means anything at all, it doesn’t mean much. So, what we’ve got is indeed a boring, dangerous and meaningless play. The kickoff is redundant and adds nothing.
I’m sure most people, once they got use to it, would not in any way miss the kickoff. But the onside kick is beloved, many people’s favourite play is an onside kick so we would have to replace it with something better. In 2018, the AAF (Alliance of American Football) announced there would be no kickoffs in the league and by extension no onside kicks. What they replaced it with was much better and brings up back to the beginning of the article. Instead of attempting an onside kick. Teams would instead be able to go for 4th & 12 from their own 28-yard line. Not only does this have a much higher chance of being converted, it’s also way more interesting and better to watch. The NFL proposal would have been closer to the original Schiano Proposal, named after college coach Greg Schiano, with 4th & 15 in play instead. Instead of kicking off the team can opt to punt instead which is much better since as we mentioned, a punt is more interesting and safer and can have a bigger effect on the game than a kickoff. If the team want to go for the equivalent of an onside kick then they can actually go for the 4th & 15 and if they convert it, they get a first down. The chances of converting a 4th & 15 are much higher at 23% of the time which would bring much more excitement to the end of the game than the onside kick which is either dangerous (if we revert the 2018 safety measures) or hopeless.
For the second year it was proposed and for the second year it somehow failed. The ‘traditionalists’ blasted the idea as being nothing but a gimmick, what they didn’t explain is why the kickoff and onside kick is better. The obvious reason for me being that there is no explanation other than tradition. The kickoff has been around as long as the sport, it’s ran it course, it needs to go away. The NFL has been called the ‘No Fun League’ in the past and with this ruling they are once again proving that nickname to be true. The kickoff and onside kick simply make no sense in a league that values both entertainment and safety. If the NFL honestly cared about both of those things, they would do what is right and kill the kickoff.