At least in the abstract ideal, the incorporation of rules to oversee and officiate a game is all about balance. There can be justifiable calls to tweak a rule here and there — it’s not as though game rules were passed along from on high and sacrosanct, after all — in even a balanced game. But practically speaking, changing a rule one way often means revisiting it later on to make adjustments.
That’s what we have seen in recent years with the number of alterations that the NFL has made to the onside kick, which has had the unintended effect of greatly reducing the recovery rate for onside kicks by the kicking team, and which obviously dilutes the potential for intrigue at the end of close games.
Yesterday, the owners approved a new amendment to the rule governing onside kicks, proposed by the Competition Committee, in the hopes that it will help to restore some balance. The amendment limits the receiving team to employing a maximum of nine players within the ‘setup zone’, the 15-yard box behind their restraining line.
“It’s only passed for one year, and so we’ll see if it makes any difference,” Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II commented yesterday on the rule change. “But with some of the recent rules changes that had been made, the percentage of onside kicks recovered by the kicking team has really dropped. This is an effort to provide a little better opportunity for the kicking team to recover.”
Truth be told, I can’t even tell you the last time the Steelers have successfully recovered an onside kick, but I can tell you it’s been a while. I don’t believe that Chris Boswell has ever successfully converted an onside kick attempt. They have, however, allowed opponents on multiple occasions to recover free kicks following safeties, which is just… baffling.
The NFL is a business, and they know that excitement brings eyes, which brings money in the long run. They want close games, and successful onside kick recoveries help to keep games close when a team is down by multiple possessions late in the game.
The 2020 season was among the most competitive campaigns collectively, and that no doubt helped boost the league’s ratings in a trying year. While this will only affect a minimum amount of games, an adjustment like this to the onside kick rule has been needed for some time now.
Of course, nobody will like it when they’re on the receiving end and they can only have nine players line up in the setup zone at kickoff, particularly in the event that it does actually result in a successful recovery.