There was a time when, if your team was down two scores at the two-minute warning, you still figured you had a chance: Get a score, recover the onside kick, score again. That time is over.
That’s because recovering the onside kick is not a realistic possibility, thanks to the rule changes that the NFL made to kickoffs.
This year, teams are 0-for-16 on onside kicks. Now that the kicking team is required to stand one yard behind the line, and not get a running start until the ball is kicked, it’s simply not feasible for players on the kicking team to get into position to recover the ball 10 yards downfield.
As demonstrated by the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which track player through chips worn on their shoulder pads, kicking team players can’t get into position to recover an onside kick without a running start. It’s still technically possible to recover an onside kick if a player on the receiving team bobbles it badly enough, but realistically, it’s hardly ever going to happen.
Asking the NFL to change its kickoff rules to make onside kicks easier to recover is probably unrealistic. Under the old rules, onside kick recoveries often involved high-speed collisions, with members of the kicking team drilling members of receiving team while they were trying to grab the ball. The league doesn’t want more high-speed collisions on kickoffs. That’s why the rules changed.
Which means the league needs to find an alternative to onside kicks. Perhaps something like the Alliance of American Football tried, where a team could choose to put its offense back on the field with a fourth-and-12 from its 28-yard line, meaning if the offense could pick up 12 yards, that team could keep the ball.
Or perhaps the NFL could make keeping the ball part of the conversion attempt after a touchdown: Allow teams to “go for two plus the ball” by lining up from the 15-yard line (the kicking extra point distance) and trying to run or pass the ball into the end zone. Score from the 15, and the team not only gets two points but also gets the ball back for the next possession, rather than having to kick off.
Whatever it does, the league should try something. When teams are 0-for-the season on onside kicks, that should raise eyebrows in the league office that one of the most exciting situations in football — a team coming back from two scores down late in the game — has gone extinct.