football (american) kicking question

As my day of football-watching comes to a close, I realize that there’s always been something that doesn’t quite make sense.

[Scenario A] A kickoff travels downfield and goes out of bounds at, say, the 5-yard line. The receiving team gets the ball at a designated point, which I believe is 30 yards from where it was kicked. That would put the ball on the receiving team’s own 40, which seems fair: they get decent field position as a penalty to the team that couldn’t keep the kick inbounds. But…

[Scenario B] On an onside kick attempt, if the kick goes out of bounds, the kicking team’s penalty is not to give the ball to the team 30 yards away, but rather, to move the ball back 5 yards and re-kick. This is considered a penalty? They get another chance to try and get the ball back! Why are there (seemingly) two different rules at work here? I’m assuming it has to do with the distance the ball is kicked, but that answer somehow isn’t satisfactory. Why should a team genuinely trying to give the ball to the opponent (scenario A) be penalized, while a team attempting to keep the ball for itself, but failing, is in essence, rewarded with a “do over”? In short, shouldn’t the team that doesn’t convert the onside kick simply be given the standard penalty for kicking off out of bounds: the ball goes to the opponent?

If the ball goes out of bounds, the receiving team has three options 1) take the ball 30 yards from the point of the kick, 2) take the ball at where it went out of bounds, and 3) force a rekick from five yards back. But if someone on the kicking team handles the ball before it has gone ten yards, it’s an illegal procedure, which is a 5-yard penalty.

In the case of the 5-yard pushback on the “failed” onside kick, I think what really happened was that the kicking team gained possession (which means the ball did not go out of bounds) and was a little too quick doing it. Because this kind of illegal procedure isn’t a dead ball foul, the receiving team has the option of declining. So they don’t have to give the kicking team another chance.

If you’re watching on television, the commentators usually do a good job of explaining these intricacies whenever they pop up. It’s a pretty good learning experience.

The NFL rule is that if you try an onside kick (which I believe is defined as a kick that is less than 20 yards), and it goes out of bounds, you get one more chance to try, but from 5 yards back.

On any longer kick, you don’t get an option.

The reason is that the NFL wants to give teams trying an onside kick a slightly better chance to recover it. But with a regular kickoff, they just want to keep the game moving along.

Remember that a kickoff has to go 10 yards before the kicking team can touch it.

So, I gather you were watching the Dallas/Washington game too, huh? :slight_smile: I thought Dave Campo was going to burst an artery right there on the sideline after the illegal procedure penalty on the 'Skins gave them another shot at the onside kick.

My reference source (1993 edition of Make the Right Call, a public-consumption NFL rulebook) is at home, while I’m not. However, from what I dimly recall:

As others have mentioned, there is a special clause for onside kicks. The definition of an “onside kick” was surprisingly subjective, IIRC. It defined it something like “a kickoff obviously kicked intentionally short which travels less than 20 yards,” or some such.

I believe (but I’m not certain) that in the NFL this onside kick rule only applies once. If the second attempt (from the 25 yard line now) also goes out of bounds, you don’t get a third try - the receiving team takes over (at the spot, or is there yardage tacked on?). Actually, Bob mentioned this, but I’ll second his recollection.

Yeah, all of what has been said seems to be the case, but it still doesn’t seem fair. A team should get two tries to keep the ball, when it messed up the first try? This is a rule that needs to be changed, for sure. A mulligan doesn’t seem equitable.

But before the rule was changed back in the 1980s, you could keep trying onside kicks indefinitely. You just would get moved back five yards and then eventually half the distance, which of course means it would go on infinitely.

The rule is designed to give teams two chances at an onside kick and no more. That seems fair to me. And if you’re not kicking it onside, then you get one chance just to keep things moving along.

Just to be a stickler, nearly every kickoff in the NFL is a onside kick.

Any kickoff that goes ten yards is considered “onside.” Once that distance is traveled, the ball can be recovered by either the kicking or receiving team.

That’s why you never see the receiving team do what they do on punts – walk away from the football and let it bounce. If the ball doesn’t cross the goal line for a touchback, anyone can pick it up.

Of course, most people only think of an onside kick as a short-distance kickoff where the kicking team is trying to gain possession. But if you want to win a few bar bets, bet that the opening kickoff will be an onside kick (if you don’t mind getting beaten up afterwards).

I’ll need to check my rulebook, but I tentatively disagree with you. :slight_smile: The term “onside kick” is specifically defined - I’ll pull out the exact definition (in 1993) when I get home tonight, but it’s meant to include only those kicks that we commonly think of as “onside kicks.”

I do believe I understand what you’re saying, and you’re right: once the ball goes 10 yards, it’s live. More to the point, the kicking team can recover the ball without it being touched by the receiving team and actually retain possession. This is true for all kickoffs, even the, um, not-onside ones.

The only reason the distinction is even made, IIRC, is to have different consequences if the ball goes out of bounds untouched.

This is sounding like a subtlety-within-a-subtlely. Tonight I’ll check up on this to be more sure.

Here is the way to look at kicking in American football:
There are two families of kicks:
Free kicks and scrimmage kicks

Free kicks are almost always kickoffs (from the 30 in the NFL, 35 in college, and 40 in high school). The other type of free kick happens after a safety and that is from the 20.
Most of the time you can use a tee for a free kick (except in the NFL after a safety).

On any free kick, the receiving team must not be standing any closer than 10 yards to the team making the free kick.

The team making the free kick has to kick the ball inbounds. If it goes out of bounds, there is a penalty, which varies depending upon the situation and rules in place. A free kick that has travelled 10 yards can be recovered by either team. The receiving team may choose to touch a free kick before it goes 10 yards. However, once it does, then the ball is fair game for both teams. In the NFL, a free kick must be downed in the end zone by the receiving team or else the kicking team can fall on it and score a touchdown. In college, you can just give up on the ball and it’s a touchback.

Scrimmage kicks are what we know as field goals and punts. They are treated the same way. They are both plays from the line of scrimmage. If you punt the ball, you are giving up possession of the ball to the other team. If you attempt a field goal (either by placement or drop kick), you are trying to score three points. If a scrimmage kick is blocked, the kicking team can pick up the ball and advance it if it is behind the line of scrimmage. If it is blocked and goes beyond the line of scrimmage, the kicking team cannot advance the ball.
If the scrimmage kick is a field goal attempt and it is missed, the defense can try to pick up the miss and advance like it a punt or they can just let it go and the ball gets placed back at the appropriate spot depeding upon the rules being used. If a field goal is missed and the defense touches the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, it is live again for both teams (paging Leon Lett!).

BobT saved me a good bit of typing by summarizing the kicking rules, probably more accurately than I’d have been able to. In the interest of saving people from losing bar bets with rule-mongers, though, I’ll go ahead and provide the rulebook definition of an “onside kick.”

Source: Make the Right Call - The Official Playing Rules of the NFL, 1993 edition.

Like I mentioned earlier, the only apparent reason to formally define such a beast is so that it can have slightly different rules regarding out-of-bounds.

Just so we’re clear: the kicking team can recover (and retain possession of) any kickoff - even those that don’t qualify as “onside kicks” - without the receiving team touching the ball. Provided that it goes 10 yards, of course.

This rulebook is positively Byzantine. It’s in a confusing order, and the way some rules are written is kind of vague. It doesn’t help that the rulebook uses terminology that is generally completely absent from TV broadcasts and other lay accounts of games.

“Dead in Touch”, “Basic Spot”, and “Mark of the Catch” are all terms that have some significance.

I don’t have my rule book handy at the office, and I don’t feel like digging up the resource online, but I’m quite certain that the ball is spotted at the 35 yard line, not 30 yards from the spot of the kick. This is a fairly significant difference.

I’m pretty sure the rule is 30 yards from the spot of the kickoff. The only difference is in high school.

In the NFL, you kick off from the 30 and if it goes out of bounds, the receiving team gets the ball at the 40.

In NCAA ball, you kick off from the 35 and if it goes out of bounds you get the ball at the 35.

However in high school football, you kick off from the 40 and an out of bounds kick is taken at the 35, although you can still make the other team kick it again from five yards back.

I really hate it, but the NFL’s Digest of Rules is all that I have available at the moment. According to its kickoff page, the receivers take possession 30 yards from the spot of the kick (or where the ball went out, if that’s more favorable).

Normally, this would be the receiving team’s 40 yard line in the NFL. Of course, if the kickoff line gets moved by a penalty, this line moves along with it.