GREEN BAY – NFL owners will vote on a potential alternative to the onside kick for the 2020 NFL season during a virtual meeting this Thursday.
The measure would allow teams, regardless of the score, to execute a fourth-and-15 offensive play from their own 25-yard line in lieu of an onside kick. A team may exercise this option at any time after scoring, but no more than twice in a game.
If successful, the offensive team would maintain possession of the ball and continue its offensive series. If unsuccessful, the opposing team would take over at the spot of the ball.
The conversion rate for onside kicks has dropped dramatically since the league overhauled kickoffs to improve player safety in 2017. No longer able to overload one side of the field or have kickoff team members get a running start, NFL teams have converted only 11-of-109 onside kicks (10%) over the past two seasons, down from 13-of-60 (21.7%) in 2017, according to CBS Sports.
That conversion rate dips another 2.5% when removing Atlanta kicker Younghoe Koo's three successful onside tries in the same game last year against New Orleans.
"It's made the play safer but it has made it harder," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said of the alignment rules. "I don't know if (the proposed measure is) gonna lead to a greater success rate or not. I just know with the rules it has made it harder. It's what it is, so we gotta try to find a creative way to get a kick in there that maybe we can hit it into a certain area and bring a fold guy in (from the other side) and those type of things."
It's important to note the proposal still allows teams to attempt a traditional onside kick. If enacted, the fourth-and-15 measure would give teams another option to maintain possession.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby was one of the league's most productive kickers on onside attempts before the league changed alignment rules. Kicking teams are now required to have five players on each side of the kicker, with two outside the numbers on each side.
The two-year decline has led to the idea of a fourth-and-15 play gaining more momentum, though it was shot down during a vote at last year's NFL owners meetings.
Mennenga has read through the proposal and is prepared to "adapt" if it is ratified this week. As a lifelong special-teams coach, however, a part of him wouldn't want to see the onside kick – or any special-teams play – go by the wayside.
"Whatever the league decides, we'll be ready to go," Mennenga said. "I know there'll be some tweaks to everything and there'll have to be some things worked out, depending on how it all unfolds, but we'll be ready to go with whatever happens."
The danger for both sides is the risk of penalty. A defensive pass interference call or holding penalty would result in an automatic first down for the offense.
Conversely, the offensive team cannot choose to kick off after being penalized on the fourth-and-15 play. A holding call, for example, would force the offense to go for it on fourth-and-25 from its own 15.
Depending on the outcome of Thursday's vote, the Packers' offensive coaches already know they could soon be responsible for a building a new section of the playbook.
"I'm not going to lie to you, on our game sheet we really don't have that fourth-and-15 section right now," said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. "But with the changes coming out, it might be something we have to throw in there and investigate and look at. It's a very unique situation.
"It'll definitely be interesting to see what we think we can do and dial up some fun creative things."