Is NFL's Proposed Onside Kick Amendment The Right Answer?

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In five days, NFL owners will meet virtually to discuss and ultimately vote on a slew of proposed rule changes brought to the table by some of the league's individual teams. 

Front and center are the NFL’s onside kick issues, which have become nearly obsolete with the new kickoff policies that are aimed at improving player safety. 

In 2017, the final year before the last round of changes, teams recovered 21% of their onside kick attempts (12 of 57). In expanding the data to run from 2013-17, the success rate dips to 16%. Since 2018? Onside kick success rate sits at 10.5% and that number is boosted by the Falcons recovering two consecutive onside kicks in a November 2019 contest against the Saints, plus a third that was erroneously negated due to a poor offsides penalty.

Finding reasonable alternatives to keep teams alive late in games is a must, given the protections now afforded to the receiving team with the new kickoff policies. But the Eagles may have an answer.

Philadelphia proposed a rule change for the 2020 season that would allow kicking teams to play a single down on offense from their own 25-yard line instead — a make it, take it proposition that would otherwise feature a turnover on downs and concede possession to the opposition.

Here is the official language included in the rule proposal:

This certainly would provide coaches with more confidence in retaining possession than the opportunity to take a flat-footed onside kick with the restrictions on hitting opposing players fielding the ball. The cap on two onside kick replacements will help prevent the decision making from getting out of hand and allowing elite offense teams to simply overwhelm opponents by refusing to ever give up the ball too. What makes this rule proposal such a fascinating proposition is the success rate of the proposed conditions.

Third and fourth downs with 15 yards to go yielded a 16% success rate in 2019 among all NFL teams — the equivalent to the success rate of onside kicks between 2013 and 2017. From a purely statistical standpoint, this is an equivalent likelihood of conversion versus the old rules. Of course, not all offenses are created equal. You don't think Patrick Mahomes wouldn't enjoy fourth-and-15 from his own 25-yard line in a critical situation a bit more than Mitchell Trubisky? And the NFL's head coaches come from varying degrees of aggressiveness too. 

It would be fascinating to see when teams would be willing to opt for the onside kick replacement in a non-traditional setting. Every so often you'll see coaches pull out surprise onside kicks. That can still be a factor, but when will be the first time a team opts to exercise the kick replacement outside of being down multiple scores late in the game?

Maybe we never do. But seeing the NFL's aggression trends beginning to tick upwards at an accelerating rate, even in yardage situations that extend beyond a yard to go and scaling as far back as a team's own 40-yard line, seems to suggest that teams will eventually evolve and find opportunities to evolve this potential rule beyond needing points in a hurry. And that creates more strategy, more compelling reasons to watch and more excitement. 

That's a good thing, and we should all be rooting to see this proposal passed when the NFL owners vote on it next week.

Written By:

Kyle Crabbs

Director of Content

Director of Content & Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Draft Dudes podcast. Former NDT Scouting Overlord.

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