Of all of the proposals considered by NFL owners during Thursday’s virtual meeting, the most time was devoted to the conversation regarding the use of a fourth-and-15 play as an alternative, twice per game per team, to the onside kick.
As a source with knowledge of the conversations explained it to PFT, the discussion as to the fourth-and-15 play, as proposed by the Eagles, centered on two concerns.
First, if the kicking team recovers an onside kick, it cannot advance it beyond the spot of the recovery. The fourth-and-15 alternative, as a scrimmage play, would not be limited to the line to gain or the spot of the catch or anything other than where the play ends — up to and including a touchdown.
As the source explained it, some believe it doesn’t “feel right” to permit the team that needs only 15 yards in order to keep possession attempt to gain considerably more than that, especially if it has a high-end quarterback.
Second, the fourth-and-15 play puts extra pressure on officials to throw a flag for defensive holding, illegal contact, or pass interference. Whether officials call those fouls like they would on a normal play or take a “push the flag deeper in the pocket” approach, the situation will result in much more scrutiny being applied to the officials on those plays.
In a conference call conducted by the league after Thursday’s virtual ownership meeting, Competition Committee chair Rich McKay and NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent confirmed that discussion occurred as to the first point. Vincent said that someone mentioned in jest during the meeting that teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks should be excluded from the conversation.
The overriding concern as to the fourth-and-15 alternative comes from striking the right balance between giving the team that is trailing an opportunity to win the game or force overtime and respecting the fact that one team has managed to, throughout the course of the game, secure the lead.
“You don’t want to make the comeback too easy,” McKay said. “You’ve earned the right to be ahead.”
As explained on Wednesday, making the fourth-and-15 play an untimed down could result in the elimination of a margin of up to 16 points in only a handful of seconds of clock time. That said, the league likes it when games remain undecided for as long as possible. Those games generate the most interest and hold their TV ratings longer. Given the availability of the fourth-and-15 play, a game wouldn’t necessarily be “over” when it otherwise seems “over” — especially if the team that is losing has a rocket-armed quarterback.
Despite the tabling of the proposal, the league office seems to want to see this change made, based on Thursday’s effort to push back against concerns that the fourth-and-15 play represents the first step toward killing the kickoff completely. While other concerns have derailed fourth-and-15 for now, the league realizes that it’s in everyone’s best interests for as many games as possible to remain in the balance for as long as possible.
Once the teams realize and accept that this change benefits the greater good, there will be a much greater chance that the change will be made.
Still, don’t expect that change to happen soon. According to the league, the measure is not expected to be revisited before the start of the 2020 season. Which means that this will be, at the earliest, a potential change for 2021.