By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The changes to the kickoff rules in recent years have more or less neutered the onside kick. In an effort to keep comeback hopes alive, the NFL may be instituting a major change.

And it may be coming soon.

Owners will vote on Thursday to approve or deny a rule change proposal that would give teams the chance to run an offensive play instead of attempting an onside kick. Essentially, instead of kicking off after scoring, teams can opt to run the equivalent of a fourth-and-15 play from their own 25-yard line. If they gain the necessary yardage, they keep possession. If not, possession goes to the other team, much like a failed onside kick.

For the rule to pass, 24 of the 32 owners will have to approve it.

The rule change became an official proposal in early April, and since then, a minor tweak has been added. Instead of having the clock run during the fourth-and-15 play, it will be proposed as an untimed down.

That will be significant, as it could save crucial seconds for a team attempting a comeback late in the fourth quarter.

The other tweak: Teams can’t try the fourth-and-15 option in overtime. That would prevent a team from scoring on the first possession and then trying to end the game by converting the play and thus ending the game.

Something else to keep in mind: If a defensive team commits a penalty after a scoring play, that penalty yardage will be assessed on the fourth-and-15 play, if teams elect to make that attempt. So if the defense commits a 15-yard penalty on a scoring play, the offensive team could attempt the fourth-and-15 from their own 40-yard line, making the option much more enticing for coaches.

One potential drawback is the fact that all normal penalty rules apply, which creates the scenario where a bad penalty call could vastly impact the game. It could also lead to selective enforcement of certain penalties — a la pass interference almost never being called on Hail Mary plays. And any time rules are applied differently at different parts of the game, the sport runs the risk of generating all sorts of officiating controversy. (This particular league never seems to be bothered by such controversy though … and it even seems to enjoy the added attention that the arguing over calls and non-calls brings. So there’s that.)

Admittedly, it’s a little bit complicated, and referring to it as a “fourth-and-15” instead of a simplified “onside kick alternative” does it no favors in that regard. But overall, with much of the excitement of the onside kick having been drained from the sport, this proposal will seemingly replace a missing element that should keep hope alive for more teams late in games.


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