USFL to use fourth and 12 play as onside kick alternative; will NFL be next?

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It’s believed in some circles that, eventually, the NFL will replace the onside kick with a fourth-down play conducted by the team that otherwise would be kicking off. The USFL will be re-debuting next month with that specific wrinkle in the rulebook.

The USFL will allow the kicking team to make a choice. It may conduct a “traditional” onside kick from the standard kickoff spot of the 25-yard line, or it may attempt a fourth-and-12 play from its own 33-yard line. If the team converts a first down, it retains possession. If it fails, the other team assumes possession.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell first mentioned the fourth-and-15 play as an alternative to the kickoff generally in the 2012 Time cover story touting him as The Enforcer. It was presented as an idea from Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano based on his personal experience at Rutgers, when Eric LeGrand suffered a serious neck injury during a traditional kickoff.

In 2019, the Broncos proposed the fourth-and-15 play as an alternative to the onside kick. Not enough owners voted for it — even though the Competition Committee recommended it by a vote of 7-1.

In September 2021, Goodell mentioned the possibility of a fourth-and-15 play during an appearance on Morten Andersen’s podcast when discussing the difficulty in recovering an onside kick.

“I do see something happening in that area, because we don’t want something to be a dead play,” Goodell said. “When there’s no excitement to it and the outcome is pretty much — I think we’re literally down to . . . four percent success rate [for recovering onside kicks].” Goodell then mentioned the fourth-and-15 possibility. He also acknowledged the unintended consequence of a long defensive pass interference penalty happening on a fourth-and-15 onside-kick alternative.

If something is going to happen for 2022, it could happen next week, when the owners gather in Florida to consider proposed rule changes. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the fourth-and-15 alternative currently isn’t on the docket of proposal. That doesn’t mean it won’t be discussed, or acted upon. As explained in Playmakers, the controversial lowering-the-helmet rule wasn’t on the docket, either. But it went from concept to rule quickly, at the annual meeting.

That said, a rule change from 2021 helped increase the onside-kick success rate to 17.3 percent in the 2021 regular season (nine of 52). In 2020, the regular-season recovery rate was only 4.9 percent (three of 61). While the success rate still hasn’t returned to the 21-percent figure from 2017 (the last year before changes to the kickoff formation made onside kicks much harder to recover), it’s a major improvement. The league therefore may decide to give the new onside kick approach (which limits the receiving team to nine players in the “setup zone”) more of a chance before ditching the current approach for what would be a radical change.

Meanwhile, the NFL also can monitor the USFL’s experience with the fourth-and-12 alternative. If it works there, maybe the NFL will consider adopting it.

9 responses to “USFL to use fourth and 12 play as onside kick alternative; will NFL be next?

  1. Am I the only one who HATES this gimmick? Why do we need to help teams that played poorly enough to be behind as time runs out? If you have a great QB, 4th and 12 (or 15 or whatever) is totally doable. Not to mention all the nonsense that it brings up with illegal contact, holding, PI. Like we need to give the refs another chance to determine the winning team? Please, just NO!

  2. I like some of the ideas the USFL has. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out. Hopefully the NFL will pay attention and implement this and the overtime shootout rules. I think the overtime shootout rule would be more equitable and more exciting. I don’t think anyone can deny that the college overtime rule has been exciting.

  3. If you are basing future success of the “4th and 15” on past performance, you are looking at it all wrong. Why, because there is a cost benefit to the plays you practice during the week. By increasing the importance of a 4th and 15 play, OCs will spend more time drawing up “trick” plays and teams will necessarily practice these more. I predict the success rate will be much higher than anyone imagines; this could be good or bad. Maybe a team gets so good at it that they always go for the “onside play”. Do we want to see teams run up the score in this manner? Maybe you can only use it when you are losing? Who knows, but there will be unintended consequences; just like offensive lineman jumping on purpose to take advantage of the defensive offside rule.

  4. Let’s just take all the collisions out of football. We have lost our way with football…fans are attracted to the sport because of passing,catching, defensive plays,and COLLISIONS. I get why they are doing it but it still stinks.

  5. Um,what is the point of increasing the success rate of giving the ball back to the team that just had it? If you just scored and are still losing that’s on you. Why should the NFL be trying to give you a better chance of winning? There’s a reason the ball has to travel 10 yards on a kickoff before it’s considered one. Because the other team gets the chance to posses the ball from kick off. In my opinion if you’re going to change anything to make the game more fair then you do away with kick offs and just give the ball to the opponent at the 25. If not then leave it the way it is.

  6. However unlikely, it’s possible that one team could have only have one offensive possession the entire game.

  7. Enough with all the rule changes every year. And people wonder why the zebras are always screwing up. Goodell said there is no excitement on the onside kick? He is an idiot

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