The NFL systematically has marginalized the kickoff over the past decade. And for good reason. It was, as league officials admitted, the most dangerous play in the game, with high-speed collisions leading to concussions and other injuries, sometimes serious.
Recent changes to the kickoff procedures have reduced the magnitude of the hits by limiting the ability of two players running in opposite directions to gain a full head of steam. Those changes also have made it much harder for an onside kick to succeed. Which makes it much harder for a team that is trailing by more than one score late in a game to mount a comeback.
So what can the NFL do to help the losing team? It can try a different strategy for retaining possession after a score, and in the otherwise meaningless and irrelevant Pro Bowl, the league will experiment with a new procedure.
The fourth-and-15 concept first appeared in the Time “Enforcer” profile of Roger Goodell from 2012, as an idea shared with Goodell by then-Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. (While Schiano was at Rutgers, Eric LeGrand suffered permanent paralysis during a kickoff.) Getting rid of the kickoff and replacing it with that fourth-and-15 play gives the team that otherwise would have been kicking off the option to punt, to run a play (simulating the obvious onside kick), to fake a punt (simulating the surprise onside kick), or to pooch punt from a normal scrimmage formation.
For the Pro Bowl, fourth-and-15 will be used only when a team chooses to attempt an onside kick. Otherwise, the team that would be receiving the kickoff will get the ball on its own 25.
As the kickoff fades from relevance and, quite possibly, closes in on extinction, the question becomes whether to use the fourth-and-15 play as the replacement for every kickoff (including the occasions when a team would punt from that spot) or only when the team that would be kicking off wants to try to retain possession. The latter option limits the number of punt plays in a game (which raise separate concerns about high-impact collisions), but it also eliminates completely and entirely from NFL football the surprise onside kick.
Of course, the surprise onside kick already has gone the way of the dodo bird, given the difficulty in recovering them under the current kickoff configuration. The intended onside kick, while routinely attempted, is rarely recovered. So why not give a team the option to retain possession by converting fourth and long?
Six years ago, in the days preceding Super Bowl XLVIII in New York, Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked who he roots for. He said the team that’s losing. Under current rules, if the team that is losing is losing by two or more scores late, that team has little or no chance to close the gap. The only way to change that at this point is to embrace the fourth-and-15 play as an alternative.