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The NFL’s ‘4th and 15’ onside kick idea was a good one even though it didn’t pass

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Just when you thought NFL owners were going to pass a rule that actually made sense, they went ahead and shelved the proposal for a fourth and 15 offensive play in lieu of a traditional onside kick.

Ravens at Steelers Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

During a virtual meeting on Thursday, NFL owners decided to shelve a proposal that would have paved the way for an alternative to the onside kick. The proposal, one which was first presented by the Eagles, would have allowed teams to attempt to convert a fourth and 15 play from their own 25-yard line following a score. Teams would have been permitted to try this play twice in regulation, whether they were ahead, behind or tied.

In a league which has seen its share of convoluted, messy, and downright confusing rules and rules changes over the years— including the catch rule and using instant replay to determine pass interference— I thought the onside kick alternative would have been a really good change. For one thing, it wasn’t going to eliminate the traditional onside kick; teams could have attempted as many as they saw fit, something that would have kept the surprise onside kick in play.

Secondly, this alternative may have added excitement to the ends of games, especially since the success rate of onside kick recoveries dropped dramatically (11 of 109) after the NFL prohibited players from getting a running start beginning with the 2018 season.

Thirdly, unlike an onside kick which relies heavily on a lucky bounce or two, the fourth and 15 play would have been just that, an actual play. Not a gimmicky play, either— you could make an argument that the traditional onside kick is about as gimmicky as a football play can get— and when you have an actual play, that calls for real strategy for both the offense and defense.

Also, while the onside kick change may have increased a team’s chances of maintaining possession following a score, it wouldn’t have done so dramatically. As per CBSSports.com, NFL teams converted two of seven fourth and 15 plays in 2019 (28.6 percent) and seven of 29 between 2015-2019 (24.1 percent). This might be a huge jump from the 11 percent coverage teams were converting on onside kick attempts the previous two seasons, but not such a huge jump that it would have emboldened coaches to attempt it more frequently in situations in-which they weren’t totally desperate.

For starters, not only would a failed attempt lead to an opponent getting the football at no worse than just inside the 40-yard line, once a team declared it was going for it, it couldn’t then decide to kickoff after an offensive penalty. In other words, if the offense was called for holding during the play, it would have been forced to try and convert a fourth and 25 from its own 15.

There were so many possibilities for this new rule, too.

Not only would it have given teams that were down by two scores late in a game more than a puncher’s chance of winning, it may have prevented games from getting totally out of hand before halftime.

In my opinion, the only major drawback with the new proposal was that offenses could have kept possession of the ball on defensive pass interference and holding plays. Totally fair? Perhaps not, but, again, it may have added some excitement to a play that was becoming more and more impossible to convert.

Oh well, we’ll have to see how many traditional onside kicks get recovered in 2020. This may be an accurate barometer for how willing NFL owners might be to approve the proposed alternative next offseason.