NFL teams could have an alternative next season to onside kicks, like this one by the Ravens’ Justin Tucker. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
PHOENIX — When it comes to rule-change proposals, the NFL isn’t much for gimmicks. Owners are a mostly conservative group, and they’re unlikely to give much consideration to any measure that doesn’t take the sport as seriously as they take themselves and their game. This was, after all, known as the “No Fun League” for years, at least until the NFL recently relaxed its restrictions on players’ on-field celebrations.
So at first glance, the proposal put forth by the Denver Broncos to give a team a fourth-and-15 alternative to an onside kick might seem a bit too gimmicky for owners. It would be a major break from the sport’s traditional approach. It would be different and, perhaps, kind of fun. Doesn’t that doom it when owners take up consideration of it at this week’s annual league meeting?
According to several people familiar with the league’s inner workings, the Broncos’ proposal was well-received by the rulemaking competition committee, which voted, 7-1, in favor of it. The one dissenting vote was by New York Giants co-owner John Mara.
“What are we, the Arena Football League?” Mara said Sunday.
The proposal stands at least an outside chance of generating the 24 votes among the 32 teams needed for it to be ratified and take effect next season.
“There’s support for it,” one of those people said. “It has a chance. People liked it.”
There’s no way of knowing how the conversation will go behind closed doors once owners take up any rules proposal. That’s why it’s unclear what will happen this week regarding proposed changes to instant replay, even with the NFL under considerable pressure to do something — anything — to tweak replay in the aftermath of the botched pass interference call in the NFC championship game that put the Los Angeles Rams rather than the New Orleans Saints into the Super Bowl.
But it does appear that the fourth-and-15 proposal will not be rejected out of hand, as some rule-change proposals made by individual NFL teams (rather than by the competition committee) are.
To review, the Broncos’ proposal would give a team the option, once per game and during the fourth quarter only, to try to retain possession of the football by converting what amounts to a fourth-and-15 play from its own 35-yard line. The team would have to state its intention beforehand to use that alternative. It could not punt on that fourth down and it could not change its mind even if it was, say, given a 10-yard holding penalty on its initial try.
[‘Replay is difficult’ for the NFL. Will that keep it from fixing future Rams-Saints debacles?]
The proposal comes at a time when onside kicks have become nearly impossible for the kicking team to recover under the sport’s new safety-related kickoff rules. There were only four successful onside kicks all of this past season.
The new kickoff rules were put in place before the 2018 season in what amounted to a last-ditch attempt to keep the kickoff from being eliminated from the sport entirely. League leaders had called the kickoff the sport’s most dangerous play. And the new rules seemed to work. Concussions suffered by players on kickoffs were down 35 percent this past season, according to the league’s injury data. NFL medical leaders say the punt has supplanted the kickoff as the sport’s most perilous play, both in terms of concussion rates and overall injury rates for players.
But the new rules, which include the elimination of players on the kicking team getting a running start before the kick, have made pulling off a successful onside kick considerably tougher.
The fourth-and-15 proposal, sometimes credited to NFL coach Greg Schiano, once was considered a potential replacement for the kickoff. A team could have chosen to try for a first down or punt the ball away to its opponent.
Now, under the Broncos’ proposal, it is merely an alternative. The kickoff stays in the game. A team faced with a late-game deficit has the option of attempting an onside kick or trying for a fourth-and-15 first down.
It would add strategy to the game by providing that alternative. It might give hope to a team — and its fans — when trailing late in a game. It would add some intrigue.
The next step is to find out just how intrigued NFL owners are.
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