The kickoff is the rare endangered species that deserves extinction. The Braveheart-like collisions that make the play exciting are also what make it so dangerous, and the NFL’s (good and effective!) player safety rules have essentially rendered kickoffs pointless. In 2010, just 16.4 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. As of Week 15 of this season, the league-wide touchback rate is 61.9 percent. While NFL teams still have to trot out 11 special teams players after every score, what follows is little more than an empty ceremony—guard mounting without the funny hats. The only fix is to get rid of it completely.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has a favored replacement in mind, one he’s been talking about since at least 2012. In a shocking twist, his idea is brilliant. 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!
Goodell credits former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach (and current Ohio State defensive coordinator) Greg Schiano for the idea, and I don’t know what’s more surprising: that the team owners’ handsomely paid ventriloquist dummy is open to radically changing the very fabric of the sport or that he got this exciting innovation from a man who believed the key to winning in the NFL was to fill his team with former Rutgers players. Either way, the 4th-and-15 idea is awesome, and it needs to be implemented immediately.
One of the biggest problems with the NFL is that the games are choppy. As the Ringer’s Rodger Sherman points out, kickoffs take longer to set up than any other play. A not insignificant chunk of NFL Sundays consist of the beer commercial–kickoff–truck commercial triptych of despair. A 4th-and-15 play would be a fluid continuation of the scoring drive, and its effect would be downright liberating for fans watching at home.
Getting rid of kickoffs would also 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.
The NFL is in the midst of a quarterbacking renaissance, and the position is stacked with more young and talented players than it has been in some time. What would you rather see, a kicker bouncing the ball off the ground or Patrick Mahomes trying to pull magic out of his butt? The 4th-and-15 play would result in multiple opportunities a game for him do attempt stuff like this.
Sure, this kickoff replacement would result in far more punting, but punting ain’t all bad. Punters are kind of cool now. Fake punts have always been cool. Let’s see more of both, please.
The 4th-and-15 play isn’t perfect. Penalties are annoying enough without them unlocking an infinite loop of offensive possessions, and controversial calls will come under even more scrutiny. Teams with plodding offenses would suffer, but that only matters if you think the Arizona Cardinals deserve to be absolved of their sins.
Should the NFL actually go forward with the 4th-and-15 play, it would represent the sport’s biggest change since the invention of television cameras. Perhaps I’ve grown too used to touchbacks to comprehend a change-of-possession scenario with real volatility, but it would be total madness—probably far too crazy for a league as conservative as the NFL. The fact that the idea has been in the hopper since 2012 doesn’t betray a sense of urgency on the NFL’s part, but perhaps Roger Goodell will delight and surprise us with his brave, far-sighted thinking. Stranger things have … actually, stranger things have never happened. But so long as the 4th-and-15 revolution is still a possibility, I refuse to give up hope.