When Commissioner Roger Goodell first floated the concept of a fourth-and-15 alternative in a Time profile from 2012, it was mentioned as a potential replacement to the kickoff. As the NFL closes in on adopting the fourth-and-15 play as an alternative to the onside kick, the NFL wants people (specifically, the owners who will be voting on the proposal) to understand that it’s not a first step toward getting rid of the kickoff.
Per a league source, opposition to the fourth-and-15 play apparently comes from the perception that it will lead to the elimination of the kickoff entirely, with the fourth-and-15 play becoming the manner in which the ball changes hands after a score. (Actually, I’d be fine with that.) But the league insists that the fourth-and-15 play flows solely from a desire to provide teams with an alternative to the onside kick, given the reduced success rate resulting from changes to the kickoff formation — specifically, the elimination of the running start.
A series of changes to the kickoff arising from high-impact collisions that result in concussions and potential neck injuries have made the kickoff less relevant, since many kicks end up resulting in touchbacks, with placement of the ball at the 25. Similar injury concerns relate to the punt play, which also results in players colliding while moving in opposite directions at full speed.
Actually, the best outcome (although it would eliminate the surprise onside kick entirely) could entail using the fourth-and-15 play as the full replacement for the onside kick and adopting the XFL’s electric-football kickoff, which keeps 10 players from each team 10 yards apart in the receiving team’s territory, freezing them in place until the ball is caught by the return specialist. This approach packs the players in tightly, reducing the total force of the impacts between blockers and would-be tacklers and limiting the chances of concussions or catastrophic injuries.
Packers CEO Mark Murphy has said he’s intrigued by the XFL’s kickoff formation. Maybe others are, too. Maybe, eventually, the NFL will experiment with the XFL’s kickoff formation.
So maybe the onside alternative isn’t the first step toward getting rid of the kickoff. Maybe it’s the first step toward embracing the XFL’s revolutionary approach to the kickoff play.