The NFL likes to shake things up occasionally, and they’ve been doing so more often of late with special teams. Whether teams simply don’t love kickoff returns and punt returns or they’re concerned about injury, some of the most major changes we’ve seen to the rulebook have concerned those two items.
You may be able to add another item to that list shortly, because the NFL is reportedly weighing giving teams an option to go for it on 4th and 15 instead of kicking off, which would essentially become an onside kick replacement for teams interested in leaning on their offenses.
Why would the NFL do this? It’s another opportunity for offenses to shine, which is something the league has been after for a long time and prioritizes at every possible juncture. It would also be part of their continued effort to de-emphasize special teams work, which no doubt will continue.
The question is whether teams would take advantage of the option. This, from the Tom Pelissero piece linked above, is illuminating:
Only eight of 63 (12.7 percent) onside kick attempts in the NFL were recovered in 2019, per NFL Research. As for fourth-and-15s last year, only seven were attempted and only two were converted, but it was still a higher percentage at 28.6.
This would impact the Falcons, undoubtedly. They have Younghoe Koo, who proved unusually good at onside kicks and accounted for 25% of the league total a year ago, nailing two others that were called back due to penalty. Some of that is likely luck but given that freakishly good success rate compared to the rest of the league, not all of it is.
As good as Koo may be, however, the Falcons have one of the league’s better passing attacks on paper, and would certainly be tempted to try to put the nail in the coffin of, say, the Saints by following up a touchdown with a bit of a hail mary. With Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, it’s almost certain they’ll try it multiple times in 2020 if Dirk Koetter’s feeling frisky. If the team isn’t going to be keen on onside kick attempts, it may impact Koo in any competition with a kicker the team brings on later. He did fine work in 2019, but there’s no denying that the onside kicks were a part of the allure. The Falcons also converted 3rd downs at the 10th-highest percentage in the league and were 3 for 3 on plays from 4th down and 10 or more, so they have every reason to consider trying this in 2020.
That rule change hasn’t happened just yet, so all of this is in the future. The Falcons will have to mull whether they think they can convert 4th and 15s in 2020 if this does pass, and Koo will just have to be that much sharper to win the kicker gig this season.