The Pro Bowl’s Onside Kick Alternative: Just Gain 15 Yards

The Pro Bowl’s Onside Kick Alternative: Just Gain 15 Yards


The Pro Bowl is different from a typical N.F.L. game in a lot of ways. But one of the most obvious is that nobody kicks off. Since a rule change in 2013, the team that gives up a touchdown or a field goal simply gets the ball at its own 25-yard line.

But a team that is trailing late often needs an opportunity to get the ball back. Without kickoffs, there are no onside kicks. So this year, the N.F.C. and A.F.C. teams will have an alternative option.

A team that has just scored can opt to run a single play from its own 25-yard line. If the team gains 15 yards, it gets to keep the ball, and the game continues. If it fails, the opposition takes over where the ball is downed.

Kickoffs are often considered the most dangerous play in football, as large players running in opposite directions collide at full speed. No one wants an injury at the Pro Bowl, a game that fundamentally is about honoring fine players and having a bit of fun in the sunshine. (That casual attitude is also why tackling can be a bit lax in the game, leading to some high-scoring affairs over the years.)

Other rule changes that the Pro Bowl has recently taken up for safety’s sake include allowing intentional grounding and barring blitzing. In most situations, the clock continues to run after an incomplete pass, giving the impression that just about everyone at the game, and many people watching at home, are happy to keep things moving along swiftly.

The 15-yard-gain requirement of the new “onside kick” rule might seem to be arbitrary, but the numbers on it check out.

There has been a significant shift in the success rate of onside kicks recently. Historically, they succeeded at a rate of around 20 percent. But two years ago, the league instituted some safety-minded rule changes for kickoffs, most notably not allowing players on the kicking team to take a running start. As a result, the success rate for onside kicks quickly dropped by half, and is now about 10 percent.

We don’t know for sure how difficult the new play will be, but we can make an educated guess because it is comparable to going for a first down on third- or fourth-and-15. Last season, teams were 2-for-7 went they went for it on fourth-and-15 plays (not a very big sample). But on third-and-15 plays — essentially the same situation because teams often punt or kick on fourth down — offenses converted at a rate of 14 percent last season, according to Pro Football Reference. That is close to the onside kick conversion rate.

It seems the N.F.L. put some thought into choosing 15 yards as the benchmark. Based on this year’s figures, had they chosen 10 yards, the “kicking” team would succeed 25 percent of the time, probably making it too easy to get the ball back. Had they gone with 20 yards, the rate would be just 10 percent.

The lower rate of onside kick success in recent years has prompted a push to include the new Pro Bowl rule, or a version of it, in regular-season games. That was proposed last year but did not get enough support from teams to pass. (Under that proposal, the play would have started from a team’s 35, not 25-yard line. It also could have been used only once per game and only in the fourth quarter. Traditional onside kicks would have remained an option.)

If the rule does become the law of the land in the N.F.L. someday, teams will have to start seriously wrestling with the question of whether to attempt the play.

If a team is behind with little time left, it won’t have much of a choice — no matter the odds — just as with the onside kick.

But beyond those situations, don’t expect to see the play used much, if at all. Teams would be losing the element of surprise and instead simply announcing that they wanted to try the new play.

Another clear drawback is that if the play fails, the opponent gets field position in dangerous territory — 25 yards from the end zone after an incomplete pass, for example. When a traditional onside kick fails, the recovering team usually has much farther to go than that.

If the new rule does get introduced, we may have seen the last of that rare but memorably shocking play, the surprise onside kick at the start or middle of the game.



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