The most feasible — or rather, least unfeasible — means of retaining possession of the football has long been an onside kick, the success of which relies on hope: that the ball travels the necessary 10 yards, that it takes a weird bounce, that it loiters in the air long enough for a member of the kicking team to scurry downfield, box out a defender and grab it.
An intriguing alternative that would reshape and dramatize late-and-close games may yet arrive in the N.F.L., but it will not happen this season. League owners approved a series of minor rule changes Thursday but not the proposal that would have given a team that wanted the ball back an untimed fourth-and-15 play from its 25-yard line.
If the team converted, it would have kept the ball. Had it failed, the opposition would have assumed possession where the play was blown dead.
The rule, proposed by the Philadelphia Eagles after a similar change was proffered last year by the Denver Broncos, would have further dramatized tense games that had grown stale after recent rule changes intended to improve player safety lowered the success rate of onside kicks.
The proposal would not have replaced the onside kick. But it would have reduced variance, the element of chance, and given teams with powerful passing offenses a greater advantage. It stands to reason that many teams, especially those with electrifying quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson of Baltimore or Deshaun Watson of Houston would trust them more than the vagaries of a bounding ball late in a game. It probably wouldn’t be much of a decision for Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid, who could send out Patrick Mahomes to throw to a formidable armada of receivers.
Reid acknowledged on a conference call with reporters last week that he would be fortunate to have Mahomes for those hypothetical scenarios — “we’ve got a guy that can do fourth-and-15s,” he said — but that he had “mixed thoughts” on the proposed change.
“Being an old guy, I’d probably stick with the integrity of the game as it sits right now,” Reid said. “But I can also see where the other part could be exciting, too.”
Under rules enacted two years ago, which prohibited the kicking team from getting a 5-yard head start to minimize violent collisions, the onside kick has proved more difficult to recover. Just 10.5 percent of attempts (12 of 114) have been recovered by the kicking team since 2018, according to Pro Football Reference, compared with 14.5 percent (27 of 186) across the previous three seasons.
Teams would have been permitted to attempt a fourth-and-15 conversion just twice per game — an admission, perhaps, of a potential uneven playing field — and at any time, regardless of the score, though not in overtime.
One obvious downside to an unsuccessful play would have been giving the opponent good field position and an opportunity to secure victory. But Reid also indicated that the proposed play would further neuter special teams, which have been reformed by changes to kickoffs. New England Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty suggested Wednesday in a conference call with reporters that it would have effectively punished teams that were leading.
“Especially as a defensive back, you don’t mind that pressure, going out there on fourth-and-15 or whatever the down and distance. It’s, ‘All right, we’ve got to show up to win the game,’” McCourty said. “But it’s just like conversely, if I’m a team and I’ve earned the right to be up, we’ve made the plays necessary to be winning in the fourth quarter or whatever it might be, I have a chance to go seal the game by just catching an onside kick, versus being out there for a fourth-and-15. From that standpoint, I don’t really understand it. We’re now basically rewarding you for being behind and that’s the only thing that for me is a negative of it.”
In their vote on other proposed measures, the league’s owners quickly closed a loophole that allowed teams to manipulate the clock by committing dead-ball fouls while the clock is running — a strategy employed last October by New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick in a victory over the Jets, and also against him, by Tennessee Titans Coach Mike Vrabel during Tennessee’s playoff win at New England.
The owners also expanded automatic replay reviews to include scoring plays and turnovers nullified by a penalty, as well as all conversion attempts; afforded defenseless player protection to a kickoff or punt returner with possession of the ball but who hasn’t had time to avoid or ward off contact; and increased the number of players who can return from injured reserve to three from two.