I don’t need to reach out to any sources to understand certain undeniable facts regarding American professional football.
- The field is 100 yards between end zones
- If your offensive line weighs in at an average of 200 pounds, you’re going to be in trouble
- You don’t want to fail on fourth-and-1 twice in a single playoff game
- The networks that broadcast the games are selling a significant amount of advertising dollars into the games in order to pay the exorbitant rights fees, and those advertisers that buy commercials in the fourth quarter (particularly big dollars for prime-time network games) would like for the games to still be competitive at that point
These are all indisputable facts. But the last one is most relevant at the moment.
NFL owners will gather virtually this week to vote on various rules proposals. One (suggested by the Ravens and Chargers) is painfully obvious and needs to be approved. The league will have the chance to fix its asinine mistake of a year ago (making pass interference reviewable) and implement a “sky judge” type of official to solve missed calls on the field. There shouldn’t be even a modicum of dissent. Eliminating the game clock rule that Bill Belichick happily manipulated (and not-so-happily later watched Mike Vrabel manipulate) is similarly a no-brainer.
But moving away from onside kicks in favor of a “fourth-and-15” conversion opportunity? I don’t know about that one, chief.
Clearly the numbers seem to matter here. Per NFL Research, teams have converted just 10.4 percent onside kick attempts (12 of 115) during the past two seasons (since the league changed the rules to eliminate running starts, thus making the play safer). Teams converted 24.1 percent of fourth-and-15 opportunities (7 of 29) from 2015-2019.
It’s easy to wonder how the circumstances may have impacted that particular conversion rate. Were the teams attempting to convert fourth-and-15 chances typically bad football teams that trailed big late in games? Would those numbers be more likely to increase if good offensive teams find themselves in one-score games late and are facing a tired defense that just gave up a scoring drive? Or will the bad offenses be more likely to be trailing, thus helping to keep the percentages at about the same place?
The NFL gave a pretty decent explanation of why it prefers this year’s proposal (“fourth-and-15” from your own 25) to last year’s (same concept, but from your own 35). The momentum appears to be on the side of approval, giving teams the option of attempting such a play two times per game. That limit combined with the more punitive nature of the 25-yard line will likely be enough to prevent radically changing the game by having good offenses (and aggressive coaches) simply play “make it, take it.” If the offensive team fails to make the fourth-and-15, the opposing team takes over with a short field.
I still think this is at least a bit of a carnival act. It’s a somewhat contrived, manufactured concept that is at least a bit outside of the spirit of football. All 60 minutes of the game are supposed to matter. If a team builds up a sizable lead during the course of 52 minutes, it is supposed to be extremely difficult for the opposing team to come back. It’s like eliminating the “neighborhood play” in baseball. That was a good idea! Double plays aren’t supposed to be easier to turn! They’re supposed to be tough! Fair competition shouldn’t involve trying to give additional benefit late in games to football teams that fall behind!
An onside kick has largely been a play of “luck” while this fourth-and-15 conversion appears to be far more a play of “skill.” That’s a benefit to trailing teams. I don’t think I like that.
But a front office member of an NFL team reminded me of something this weekend that I can’t completely dismiss.
“You’re probably right, but this is still a form of entertainment.”
I don’t think the NFL should become a sideshow. I don’t want to see the league go to extreme lengths in the name of garnering even more interest. I mean, if they banned running plays in the second half when a team was up by more than two touchdowns, it could potentially make games more interesting and help keep ratings up through the fourth quarter, right? Yet we know that’s completely outside of the sphere of competition, so we wouldn’t do it. The XFL tried three-point conversion opportunities after touchdowns, which I’d be opposed to seeing in the NFL.
This is nudging right up on that line. I’m probably still opposed to the concept as a whole, but I get it. The NFL does have to answer to companies that are paying insane amounts of money to be a part of their product. The league doesn’t want people turning “Thursday Night Football” games off because it’s approaching 11 p.m. and it’s really unlikely the Jaguars are going to rally from down 16-6 to the Titans. They want everyone to believe that the nature of the new conversion play is keeping every team in every game — even if the percentages say the conversion is still unlikely.
I still think it’s a better idea to attempt the conversion going into the end zone. It limits how damaging one defensive back slipping or getting hurt on a play could be, or a team just tossing up a deep ball and hoping for the best. If the team converts, it gets the ball back at its own 25. I’d also prefer a longer conversion – fourth-and-20 or even fourth-and-25 (again, still going into the end zone).
But this is entertainment. The league wants the games to seem closer than they are. It wants people to keep watching. And I get it. There are worse ideas.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox