NFL owners have recently voted to table the fourth-and-15 onside kick alternative for the second year in a row. Regardless if it gets passed or not, Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons still thinks that onside kicks have meaningful value in the game today based on the situation.
“I do think more people will be inclined to use the alternative, but there are certainly some timing things that come into it,” Simmons told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “You’re down three points with 2:05 to go in the game. The clock is going to start on the touch on the kick. If you go onside kick there and don’t get it, you still have the two-minute warning. If you do a fourth-and-15 play and the offense uses more than five seconds, now the game clock is under two minutes and if you’re unsuccessful in executing, the defense takes over and takes a knee if you have no timeouts left the game is over because it’s under two minutes. I think timing really comes into play.”
The proposed alteration would allow a team that just scored to attempt to convert a fourth-and-15 from their own 25-yard line at most twice a game. There was also talk about more limitations such as not being able to use this alternative in overtime.
At first, many fans may scoff at this as an easy out for teams attempting to comeback. However, team converted third-and-15 or fourth-and-15 just over 15 percent of the time in 2019, according to Pro Football Talk.
That is about equal to the rate onside kicks were recovered from 2010-2017. What changed in 2018? To help eliminate injuries, kicking teams were no longer given as much of a head start. Instead everyone had to lineup a yard within the line of the kickoff. This made kickoffs safer, but it also drastically hindered the ability to recover onside kicks. The recovery rate dropped to just nine percent and became more of a miracle play than ever before.
“In the past, five seconds to go in the game, you attempt the onside kick and recover it and you have enough time for a play,” Simmons said. “But the fourth and 15 alternative from the 25 is a Hail Mary.”
Simmons certainly brings up some great points, even if the NFL tweaked the rule following this discussion to propose the play as an untimed down. A team that is able to convert a fourth-and-15 with timeouts could be left rushed to either stop the clock or run another play. It could also be a situation where the defense knows they either have to toss a Hail Mary or go for the sidelines. There is also the fact you are on your own 25-yard line. Turning the ball over there undoubtedly gives the opposing team at least a field goal.
To see this kind of logic in action you really only have to look back to the Bengals comeback against the Dolphins, as Hobson recalls:
They couldn’t have done it without Simmons and his guys pulling off what may be one of the last successful onside kicks ever. They couldn’t have done it with a fourth-and-15 completion from the 25, either, because with no timeouts they needed every yard, every second, every bounce. It took exactly one second off the clock, from 29 seconds to 28, for kicker Randy Bullock to pull off the Bengals’ first successful onsider in nine years with help from rookie wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr.’s jump-ball tip back to linebacker Jordan Evans at the Dolphins 46. On second down with 23 seconds left quarterback Andy Dalton whistled a 29-yarder to wide receiver Tyler Boyd over the middle and after he spiked it with four seconds left he lofted a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert on the game’s last play.
This happens to be the perfect situation that Simmons eludes to. Sure, they could attempt to convert a fourth-and-15—which would have had a higher chance of being converted—but that wouldn’t have left them with enough time to hit Boyd over the middle setting up a miracle play against Eifert.
The NFL should want the end of their games to be exciting even if a team is down by a couple of scores. Only having an option that gets converted so rarely made the end of games feel more like formality rather than suspenseful. That doesn’t make for exciting television, and it likely saw a big dip in viewers late in games as a result.
This fourth-and-15 option would allowed a higher probability to see those exciting ends to game that keep fans on the edge of their seat. As long as it had proper caveats to restrict teams from using it all game long there really isn’t that much harm in it.
Coaches like Simmons represent those who may not mind the rule continuing to get postponed.