An Ultimate Guide To NFL Onside Kick Rules

The onside kick is a high-reward strategy in American football games. NFL teams often conduct onside kicks later in the game when it’s drawing to a close.

Onside kicks bring significant advantages to the team but also contain many risks when executed. In the fight against the inherent dangers of football, the NFL has introduced changes to the way the onside kick operates since 2018.

The reduction in the concussion rate goes along with a non-brake drop of the onside kick recovery rate. It requires kicking team players to be creative in surprise onside kick procedures.

To learn more about how the NFL onside kick rule works and how it affects the entire tournament, read on with Scott Fujita. Let’s get right into the details!

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A successful onside kick recovery can change the whole game 

Definition Of An Onside Kick

The onside kick is the term American football referring to a kick where the kicking team intentionally shoots the ball a short distance through the kickoff for the receiving team. Usually, they will kick directly to the ground to bounce the ball.

How do onside kicks work? The purpose of surprise onside kicks is so that kicking teams can recover the ball because the receiving team will have trouble keeping the ball. If done successfully, the kicking team can give their offensive team more time to maintain possession.

This advantage is significant, especially in the last minutes of the game, when every opportunity is valuable.

If receiving teams recover the ball, they will immediately receive a first down from the recovery location (or dead ball spot). The receiving team needs total ball control to ensure they get the first penalty in time to tee off.

If the receiving team fumbles in front of the defending team, that team takes possession of the ball and takes the first down.

What Are The New Onside Kick Rule Changes?

If you check the previous rules, it’s easy to see that the teams with superior strength often dominate the game. They can completely monopolize the ball on the field by performing onside kicks.

Between 2001 and 2010, surprise onside kicks achieved a very high success rate, up to 60%. That number at expected onside kicks is a different story, hovering at only 20%.

This factor makes some football matches quite rough and revengeful. In 2018, the NFL decided to introduce changes to protect players when performing onside kicks.

These changes apply to both the kicking team and receiving team. Let’s learn more about the NFL onside kick rule change in this section.

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NFL wants to reduce injury rates with onside kick changes 

NFL Onside Kick Rule Change For Kicking Team (Team A)

The new onside kick rule prevents the kicking team from placing people on one side of the line at the kickoff. Their lineup will consist of five players standing on either side of the kicker. At least two players will have to stand outside the yard-line number, two players between the inbound lines and the yard-line number.

The one holding the free-kick counts is one of five players on the list, no matter where he is.

With a player standing just one yard from the penalty line, he needs to at least one foot (it doesn’t matter whether the front or back foot) touches that line. All players on the kicking team must stand within the inbounds lines and behind the ball. A few exceptions are the placekick’s holder and kicker if the kicking foot does not cross the line.

Until the kicker executes the kick, the kicking team cannot start running after the ball. It means there will be no running start. They have to line up behind a restraining line into the 35-yard line for kickoffs and the 20-yard line for safety kicks.

These changes speak to the NFL’s efforts to keep football players safe. The standard strategy of the kicking team in the past was to load one side of the ball and destroy the formation of the opposing team with a direct kick towards it. As a result, the two teams have serious collisions and sometimes lead to unwanted injuries.

NFL Onside Kick Rule Change For Receiving Team (Team B)

These changes not only apply to kicking teams but also to receiving teams. The receiving team’s restraining line will usually be 10 yards ahead of the kicking teams’ line.

The NFL’s new kickoff rules also redefine the number of personnel on the receiving team when they are required to spread out during the game. The receiving team must place at least eight players in a 15-yard setup zone between the team’s 45-yard line and their 40-yard line.

In the touchdown area, the receiving team must also add about three players. This formation aims to protect the receiving team against traditional kicks and reduce the risk of collisions between the groups.

With a defensive player taking the ball, the new NFL rules do not allow the receiving team to perform wedge blocks. Although this block suspension system is usually reserved for only three receivers aimed at the end zone, it does affect traditional onside kickers.

Please refer to the NFL official rule book to learn more about the new rules and specific instructions on kick-off changes.

Success Rate After The New Onside Kick Rules

With the new changes in kickoff rules since the 2018 season, it has become challenging for teams to recover onside kicks. There have only been about five surprise kick attempts this season compared to an average of 9.4.

The success rate also decreased quite a lot when it stopped at 6%. When you compare that to the 21% completion rate of 2017, you’ll notice the difference. This percentage has rebounded to 12.7% for the 2019 season.

What Are The Offsides And Penalties For Onside Kick Rules?

During the onside kick, there are several possible penalties. These include:

  • There will be a penalty if the kicking team kicks the ball out of bounds. The penalty will be a loss of 5 yards.
  • Another penalty occurs when the running team crosses the script line before the ball hits that line. The penalty will be a loss of 5 yards.
  • Before the ball has passed 10 yards, the kicking team must not take any action to prevent the defender from receiving the ball. The penalty for blocking or using hands on both teams is a loss of 10 yards.
  • If the receiving team touches the ball prior to passing 10 yards, the kicking team can recover the ball.

Proposal For The New Onside Kick Rule Change

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Proposal for new onside kick changes 

Onside kick plays a critical role in increasing the chances of retaining possession for teams, especially at times like the fourth quarter. Therefore, the teams are always looking for ways to develop proposals to bring more advantages to the kicking team.

In the spring of 2019, the Denver Broncos proposed to give the scoring team the option to use a fourth-and-15 play from their 35-yard line. This transformation allows the team to maintain possession.

In 2020, the Eagles made a similar proposal after the NFL rejected the Broncos’ opinion. It will see the scoring team’s foul attempt to switch play fourth-and-15 from their 25-yard line instead of attempting an inside kick. If the offense is converted, it will hold the ball. Otherwise, the defending team will take over at the dead ballpoint.

The NFL did not vote on either of these proposals. However, they still passed an experimental rule to help increase the team’s success rate when wanting to recover the ball.

The new rule limits the number of receiving team members to no more than nine players in the “setup zone.” That number was usually 10 or 11 players in previous seasons. With fewer players receiving the ball, the kicking team has more chances to recover the ball.

Frequently Asked Questions

This section will answer a few more questions about the onside kick rule.

Can you fair catch an onside kick attempt?

The rules in American football state that a team can either make a fair catch at the start or hit the ball while the ball is in the air. For an onside kick, the kicking team kicks the ball directly to the ground to make it bounce, so the ball doesn’t count as “airborne.”

For that reason, you cannot invoke a fair catch during onside kick attempts.

Were there any successful onside kick attempts in the Playoffs or Super Bowl?

There were two Super Bowls where fans were able to see successful onside kick recoveries.

  • Super Bowl XXX between Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Super Bowl XLIV between New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts.

Final Thoughts

Onside kick tactics can help the team take the lead or turn the tide in decisive moments. Its most significant minus point is the increased rate of injury and does not guarantee player safety.

No matter what you think about it, we still have to get used to the change. The key to victory was a clever tactic to catch a sleeping defense with a surprise kick.

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