I’m an obnoxious purist about baseball’s rules — America’s game should be allowed to die a slow, dull, dignified natural death — but you could propose having the refs light the ball on fire before each snap in football and I’d entertain it.
Which is my way of saying that I like this idea, floated by Roger Goodell(!) and seconded by Nick Greene of Slate.
Rather than kicking the ball off a tee, the scoring team would get the ball on its own 30-yard line in a 4th-and-15 scenario. They could elect to punt, or they would have the option to go for it and keep possession with a successful conversion. Exciting!…
Getting rid of kickoffs would … encourage teams to take risks. Giving players a reasonable opportunity to retain possession immediately after scoring would make huge comebacks (an extremely desirable event!) more plausible than ever before. Onside kicks allow teams to keep the ball after scoring, but these are even more dangerous than regular kickoffs. The league changed the rules to reduce injuries during these plays, but those tweaks made it absurdly difficult for teams to convert on their attempts. As of Nov. 21, the league-wide success rate for onside kicks was just 8 percent. In 2011, Football Outsiders crunched the numbers using college football data and found that teams have a 12.5 percent chance of converting on 4th-and-15. This may seem like just a small improvement, but offenses would undoubtedly improve if given the opportunity to practice these sorts of plays. They also would have far more agency, and would be relying on skill and smarts to decide their fates rather than the random bounces of an oblong ball.
It would speed the game up too by keeping special teams off the field in some situations, notes Greene, reducing commercial breaks. I’m more amenable to drastic rule changes in sports that make outcomes depend more heavily on excellence in regular play, not gimmicky niche skills. I’d much prefer to have soccer matches continue indefinitely with unlimited substitutions to give players a breather until one team scores than to stick with the inane competition of penalty kicks. The 4th-and-15 rule is along the same lines, as it would keep the game in the hands of the offense and opposing defense when the team with the ball is down late rather than making it a matter of special teams play. Turning the outcome of a game over to special teams is bad enough, but hinging it on a fluke like an onside kick to retain possession is grim. Professional football games routinely boil down to a play almost wholly dependent on the ball taking a lucky bounce. Bananas.
Whatever they end up doing, they have to do something about the tedium of endless touchbacks. If they want to stick with kickoffs, at least move the start of the kickoff back far enough into the kicking team’s territory that you’re assured of a return 80 percent of the time or whatever. If that idea’s a no-go (the point here, after all, is to make the game safer by eliminating a play in which the hits are very hard), change the rule so that every change of possession after a score begins as a touchback — the team getting the ball starts at the 20, period. That’d be dull but it’d speed the game up. Or, since there needs to be some option for the scoring team to try to retain possession late in a game in which it’s trailing, make the rule a binary choice. The scoring team can either hand the ball to the other team at its 20 or it can attempt an onside kick. No more traditional kickoffs.
But why would you have a rule like that when you could have a jazzy one like Greene’s? Let Patrick Mahomes try to get 15 yards on one play with the game on the line. Or, if the league wants to really jazz it up, make it a 4th-and-10 rule instead of a 4th-and-15. If that happened, I bet we wouldn’t have to wait more than a few seasons for a game in which a team trailing late by multiple touchdowns is able to mount a miraculous comeback by getting hot and converting two or three consecutive 4th-and-10 “kickoffs” after TDs. Had that rule been in effect for Super Bowl LI, Brady and the Pats might have had possession for the entire fourth quarter. It’d be fun!