Could fourth-and-15 replace NFL kickoffs in the future?

Roger Goodell appears in a Time magazine cover story in the December 17, 2012 issue: “The Enforcer” (Photo credit: Time)

This morning, ProFootballTalk,com reported that this week’s Time magazine has NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the cover (“The Enforcer’), and the accompanying cover article by Sean Gregory (“Can Roger Goodell Save Football?” – subscription required) mentioned an idea to replace kickoffs in the future.

The idea, given to Goodell by Buccaneers’ head coach Greg Schiano, would be to, instead of a kickoff, place the ball at the kicking team’s 30-yard line for one scrimmage play needing 15 yards for a first down and continued possession or a punt from the 30 — essentially a fourth-and-15 play.

So, we looked into how NFL teams have done on fourth-and-15 in 2012 through the NFL GSIS site. As you would imagine, there are not many 4-15 down-and-distance situations in a given season. And for purposes of looking at the numbers, we did not factor in down-and-distances other than 4-15. There have been seven such plays (through Week 13), with two successful attempts (28.6 percent).

The results (by team):

2012 NFL Team Success on 4th-&-15 (through Week 13)
Team4-15 AttemptsType of PlayNo. of YardsFirst Down?
Cincinnati1Pass-12No
Detroit1Pass0No
Indianapolis1Pass26YES
Kansas City1Pass27YES
Miami1Pass14No
Pittsburgh1Pass-5No
San Francisco1Pass7No
TOTALS77 Pass57 (8.1 yd avg.)2/7
Source: NFL GSIS

According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Play Finder, Indianapolis converted their fourth-and-15 on Sept. 9 against Chicago when Andrew Luck hit Donnie Avery for 26 yards from the Colts’ 38 with Indy trailing the Bears 41-21 with 1:59 remaining.

Kansas City converted on Nov. 12 against Pittsburgh when Matt Cassel completed a 27-yard pass to Dwayne Bowe from the Chiefs’ 45 with 22 seconds to play and Kansas City trailing the Steelers 13-10. The completion led to the tying field goal two plays later, but the Steelers eventually won in OT.

Additionally, since 2000, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com (full list here), there have been 89 such 4-15 attempts. Teams have converted 20 (22.5 percent) for first downs with four touchdowns, eight interceptions and six sacks on 78 passes and 11 rushes.

And what about punting from the 30 facing a fourth-and-15? Well, Pro-Football-Reference.com lists 15 such plays from 2000-12 (none this year). Punters averaged 41.5 gross yards per punt (average to the opponent’s 28.5-yard line). A total of 8 of the 15 punts were returned for an average of 5.5 yards per return with no touchdowns. As a comparison, the average starting yard line on kickoffs this year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is the opponent 22-yard line.

UPDATE: The fourth-and-15 percentage this year (28.6 percent) is actually higher than the current onside-kick recovery percentage (6-45; 13.3 percent), according to NFL.com stats (OSK, OSKR categories).

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