NFL applies valuable lesson in tabling of onside kick alternative

You know who is not making No Fun League cracks today, after owners tabled a proposal to allow teams to convert a fourth-and-15 play as an alternative to an onside kick? Special teams acolytes, who worried the play would be another baby step toward taking the kickoff out of the game.

That was never the case -- the kickoff is alive and well, despite safety-related rules changes that drove the success rate of an onside kick attempt down to 10.5 percent in the last two years. But the owners' decision to pass again on the fourth-and-15 play -- it failed badly last year -- was a nod to the traditionalists, who have long worried that the idea is too gimmicky, as Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II told Pittsburgh reporters on Thursday afternoon. Another reason to reconsider such a proposal: the conversion rate on fourth-and-15 plays over the last 10 seasons is 26.7 percent, well above the onside kick recovery rate even before the safety rules changes, which was 16.3 percent from 2013 to 2017. That might simply give teams too good a chance, an acknowledgement that one owner made during their virtual meeting when he suggested teams that have Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks should not be part of the discussion.

"There is definitely that theory that you don't want to make the comeback too easy," said Rich McKay, the chairman of the Competition Committee. "You worked all game to get ahead."

The NFL avoided the sweeping change and also agreed to a preseason test of a watered-down version of a sky judge. That will expand the authority of the existing replay assistant to communicate with the referee on the field. But McKay was clear: the referee remains in charge, and he will have to initiate the contact. The intent is to help the on-field crew by improving communication with the replay assistant, who has ready access to a video feed. The intent is not to have the replay assistant supersede the judgment of the referee, which was a concern of the Competition Committee.

This entire offseason of incremental, baby-steps rules changes seems to be a reaction to last season, when the NFL hastily cobbled together the momentous replay review of pass interference, departing from a long-held philosophy against using replay on judgment calls before watching it blow up in a season of inconsistent decisions and frustrated coaches. Everyone was so unhappy with the one-year rule change that the Competition Committee let it die, not even bringing it up again for further discussion this season. It led to an overhaul of the officiating department, which was also announced Thursday, designed to provide more assistance to Al Riveron, who bore the brunt of criticism for how the pass interference replay went as senior vice president of officiating.

The NFL has typically moved slowly on significant rules changes -- recall how many years of conversation it took before there was finally clarification on what is and is not a catch -- but its departure last season has now become a cautionary tale. So when owners spent 20 to 30 minutes asking questions about the fourth-and-15 proposal, the NFL stopped. Rooney told Pittsburgh reporters that everyone agrees it would be good to have some kind of onside kick or an alternative for a trailing team to use, but this was not the answer. So, the Competition Committee took the concerns and went back to get answers. Rooney, whose head coach (Mike Tomlin) is on the Competition Committee, said he doubts that they can come up with another rule before the start of the season.

"I think what we learned last year when we're short on time and we can't come to a resolution, a true overall consensus, we learned some valuable lessons," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "We heard it with fourth-and-15. Not to rush."

The NFL learned that lesson the hard way last season, although one thing that became apparent during the crafting of the pass interference replay rule seems to have continued this year: coaches are having a greater voice in rules development. They were the ones who pushed for a review of pass interference and they have also pushed for a sky judge to try to improve officiating. Pass interference didn't work out, but the expansion of the role of the replay assistant is an outgrowth of the sky judge idea and an acknowledgement by the league that it should use the available technology and personnel to better support the officiating crew. 

"It's a substantial change, potentially, over time," McKay said. "That's why we want to see if it would work."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista.

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