What is a Touchback in Football?

what is a touchback in football

A touchback happens when referees rule a play dead on a kick after the ball leaves the field through the defensive team’s end zone in American football. As a result, when play resumes, the team starts their offensive drive from their 25-yard line. There are no points awarded for a touchback. A touchback can also occur if a player catches a kick in the end zone and chooses not to return the ball. If the receiver refuses to return the catch by running, they need to go on one knee. Getting on one knee signals to the refs that you are opting for a touchback.


So, how many yards is a touchback worth? What causes a touchback in a football game? What plays trigger the touchback football rule?


Here is the complete breakdown to what a touchback is in football game.


How Many Yards is a Touchback?

how many yards is a touchback

When a team receives a touchback, the ball is placed at the 25-yard line to start the next drive. Historically, football teams received the ball at their 20-yard line. However, in 2012, the NCAA adopted a rule change that moved the touchback starting position five yards. The NFL adopted the college football rule for touchbacks six years later, in 2018.


What Causes a Touchback in Football?

A touchback is the automatic start of an offensive drive at the 25-yard line after the ball leaves the field through a team’s end zone on the previous play. Functionally, a touchback occurs because there’s no way to spot a ball that has either left the field of play through the end zone. Generally, special teams units are most often responsible for touchbacks, as they frequently occur during kicking plays. 


What NFL Plays Trigger the Touchback Rule?

Most people recognize a touchback during kicking plays, such as kickoffs and punts. These special teams’ plays try to get the ball as deep as possible to extend the next scoring drive and reduce an opponent’s chance of scoring. During a kickoff or free-kick, a ball becomes a touchback if it touches the ground in the opposing team’s end zone. If the football rolls out of the back-end zone or touches the field goal post, that is a touchback. Finally, the receiving team’s returner can wave a fair catch and down the ball in the end zone to trigger a touchback.


Unlike kickoffs, punting plays always result in a touchback if the ball touches the ground in the end zone. Touchbacks can also occur if the offensive team fumbles the ball in their own end zone and goes out of bounds.


If a defensive player causes the fumble, this results in a touchback for the defense. If the offense causes the fumble, the play is a safety, giving the defense two points. A fumble can force a touchback if the offense fumbles it forward and rolls out of bounds afterward.


Kicking Scenarios that Negate a Touchback

kicking scenarios that negate a touchback

Several events can happen in an opponent’s end zone during a free-kick that can negate what would otherwise be a routine touchback. A ball must be called dead either in the end zone or past it. However, until the officials declare the ball dead, there are several things both the offense and the defense can do to negate the touchback.


For example, if the kickoff returner doesn’t wave for a fair catch or take a knee in the end zone, they can enter the field of play to start the offensive drive. This means that the next drive will begin at the spot of the ball down by contact. The NFL rulebook also states that the ball carrier can’t re-enter the end zone after crossing the goal line. If a receiver re-enters the end zone after crossing the goal line, they commit a safety penalty.


Historically, football rules allowed offensive players on the kicking team to try and recover kickoffs and punts in the opponent’s end zone for a touchdown. However, the National Football League amended these rules in an attempt to avoid dangerous collisions.


Conclusion: What is a Touchback in Football

In conclusion, a touchback occurs when a ball lands in a team’s end zone after a kicking play. A touchback can arise if the defensive team causes a fumble in the opposing team’s end zone. After the touchback, the next scoring drive starts at the opposing team’s 25-yard line.


The idea behind the touchback is to do two things. First, you want to create a safe environment for the receiver. For example, allowing a touchback on a catch in the end zone stops the defensive team from crashing into them. Second, teams might want to preserve as much time on the clock as possible to win a game. The clock doesn’t run if you can call a touchback or let the ball roll out of the end zone on a kick.


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