Kickoff (gridiron football)

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Kevin Kelly and the 2007 Penn State Nittany Lions football team kicks the ball off after scoring a touchdown in their season opening game Penn State kickoff.jpg
Kevin Kelly and the 2007 Penn State Nittany Lions football team kicks the ball off after scoring a touchdown in their season opening game

A kickoff is a method of starting a drive in gridiron football. Additionally, it may refer to a kickoff time, the scheduled time of the first kickoff of a game. Typically, a kickoff consists of one team – the "kicking team" – kicking the ball to the opposing team – the "receiving team". The receiving team is then entitled to return the ball, i.e., attempt to advance it towards the kicking team's end zone, until the player with the ball is tackled by the kicking team, goes out of bounds, scores a touchdown, or the play is otherwise ruled dead. Kickoffs take place at the start of each half of play, the beginning of overtime in some overtime formats, and after scoring plays.


Common variants on the typical kickoff format include the onside kick, in which the kicking team attempts to regain possession of the ball; a touchback, which may occur if the ball is kicked into the receiving team's end zone; or a fair catch, in which a player on the receiving team asks to catch the ball without interference from the kicking team, waiving his entitlement to attempt a return rush. Additionally, penalties exist for various infractions such as a player violating his position restrictions prior to the kick (5-yard penalty), or if the ball goes out of bounds before touching a player (25 yards past the spot of the kick or placed at the spot the ball left the field of play, whichever is more advantageous to the receiving team).


End zone view of a kickoff about to occur. The Florida State Seminoles, in garnet jerseys, at the far side of the field are about to kick to the Virginia Tech Hokies in white jerseys, in the foreground. Second half kickoff, 2010 ACC Championship Game.JPG
End zone view of a kickoff about to occur. The Florida State Seminoles, in garnet jerseys, at the far side of the field are about to kick to the Virginia Tech Hokies in white jerseys, in the foreground.

A kickoff occurs at the start of each half and before the first overtime (in the National and Arena Football Leagues). It is also traditionally decided by a coin toss at the beginning of each game carried out by the referee. The visiting team captain calls either heads or tails. The winner of the coin toss elects whether to take first choice in the first half or the second half. The captain with first choice then picks either a team to kick off or an end of the field to defend. The other captain chooses the remaining option. At the beginning of the second half, the two captains choose in the reverse order. If an overtime is required, another coin toss takes place to decide who gets first possession during the overtime. After a touchdown the scoring team kicks the ball off to the opposing team. In American football a field goal also results in a kickoff by the scoring team, but in Canadian football the scored-against team has an option of scrimmaging from their 35-yard line or receiving a kickoff. An exception to the Canadian rule applies in U Sports competition; if a team scores a field goal on a play that began after the three-minute warning in the fourth quarter, a kickoff is mandatory, with the scoring team kicking off from the standard position of its own 45-yard line. [1]

After a safety in Canadian football, the scored-against kicks off. In American football, a kickoff is an option, but most teams choose to punt the ball on the free kick; the National Football League, in contrast to most other leagues, prohibits the use of a kicking tee on a safety free kick.


Dallas Cowboys kick-off during an NFL game. This picture was taken when the NFL kicked off from the 30-yard line, as it did from 1994 to 2010. Dallas Cowboys kicking off.jpg
Dallas Cowboys kick-off during an NFL game. This picture was taken when the NFL kicked off from the 30-yard line, as it did from 1994 to 2010.

The line where the ball is placed for kickoff varies among the rule books. It is placed on the kicking team's 20-yard line in the current USFL, [2] the 30-yard line in six-man football and the current XFL, 35-yard line in college and the NFL, 40-yard line in American high school football, [lower-alpha 1] on the 45-yard line in amateur Canadian football, and the goal line in indoor and arena football. For the 2016 season only, the Ivy League placed the ball on the 40-yard line in conference games. [3] All players on the kicking team except the kicker (and, if used, a holder) must not cross the line at which the ball is placed until the ball is kicked. The receiving team must stay behind the line that is 10 yards from where the ball is placed. The ball can be fielded by the receiving team at any point after it has been kicked, or by the kicking team after it has traveled 10 yards or has been touched by a member of the receiving team. In American football (but not Canadian) touchback and fair catch rules apply to the kicked ball. If it is fielded by the kicking team, it is called an onside kick. A low, bouncing kick is called a squib kick. Although a squib kick typically gives the receiving team better field position than they would if a normal kick had been used, a squib kick is sometimes used to avoid giving up a long return, as well as use up a valuable amount of time on the clock, as it is impossible to fair catch such a kick. It is usually done when a team takes the lead in the final seconds, and is done to safely run out the remainder of the clock. Squib kicking with more than 20 seconds remaining has had unfortunate results (a line drive kick is more common when there are 20 to 50 seconds remaining; the typical hurry-up offense drive takes over a minute), but has been done by some teams.

The current XFL uses a unique kickoff procedure. Kickoffs take place from the kicking team's 30-yard line, as opposed to the 35-yard line in the NFL. The positioning of players is dramatically different from that in any other outdoor football league. All players on both teams, except the kicker and a single returner, must line up directly across from each other, with the kicking team on the receiving team's 35 and the receiving team on its own 30. On each side of the ball, each team must have at least two players lined up between the outside of the yard markers and the sideline, and at least two players between the inside of the yard marker and the hashmarks. All players except the kicker and returner must remain stationary, with both feet on the ground and at least one on the team's appropriate yard line, until the returner catches the ball, or the ball has been on the ground for 3 seconds. Touchbacks are spotted at the receiving team's 35-yard line. The XFL also has severe penalties for kicks that go out of bounds, or fall short of the receiving team's 20-yard line. Onside kicks are allowed, using more conventional outdoor football rules, but the referee must be informed before such a kick can be attempted. [4]


Jason Hanson of the Detroit Lions kicks off against the Minnesota Vikings in 2012 Jason Hanson kickoff cropped.jpg
Jason Hanson of the Detroit Lions kicks off against the Minnesota Vikings in 2012

If a receiving player crosses his restraining line before the kick, the ball is to be advanced 5 yards, then re-kicked. If a kicking team player crosses the line at which the ball is placed before it is kicked, the receiving team has the option either to have the kicking team re-kick from 5 yards farther back, or have 5 yards added on to the end of the return. In high school football, the receiving team only has the option to make the kicking team re-kick.

If the ball goes out of bounds without being touched by a player, the receiving team can choose either to have the ball moved back 5 yards and re-kicked, to take the ball 25 yards (30 yards under NCAA rules; 25 yards under National Federation high school rules) past the spot of the kick (usually at their own 35-yard line), or to take the ball where it went out of bounds. On an onside kick, if the ball does not travel ten yards before the kicking team recovers the ball, they will take a 5-yard penalty and have the chance to kick another onside kick. If the onside kick goes less than 10 yards again, the receiving team will receive the ball at the spot the kicking team recovered it. However, if the receiving team touches the ball before it goes 10 yards, either team can recover it unpenalized.

The XFL has distinctive penalties for kicks that go out of bounds, fail to reach the receiving team's 20-yard line in flight, or return behind the 20 after touching the ground past it. For a kick that goes out of bounds, the receiving team may take possession either at the spot where the ball went out of bounds, or at the kicking team's 45-yard line. On kicks that fail to reach the 20, or return to the area between the 20 and the kicking team, the ball is immediately whistled dead and the receiving team receives possession at the kicking team's 45. The USFL has a similarly severe penalty for kicks that go out of bounds; the receiving team may take possession at the spot where the ball went out of bounds, or at the 50-yard line

Kickoff into end zone

Kickoffs entering the end zone are handled differently in American and Canadian rules. In the American college and professional game, if the ball goes out of bounds in the receiving team's end zone or is recovered and downed in the receiving team's end zone, the ball is placed at the receiving team's 25-yard line, and possession is given to the receiving team; these are known as touchbacks. High school football immediately rules the ball dead when the ball crosses the goal line; the ball cannot be returned from the end zone, nor can it be recovered there for a touchdown. NFL immediately rules the ball dead, when the ball touches the ground in the endzone, if not been touched by the receivers before. In the Canadian game if the ball goes into the end zone and then out of bounds without being touched, the receiving team scrimmages from the 25-yard line (no points are scored). If the receiving team gains possession of a kickoff in its own end zone and then fails to return it into the field of play, the kicking team scores one point, and the receiving team scrimmages from the 35-yard line. If the kicking team gains possession in the end zone, they score a touchdown. Various forms of indoor football also recognize the single, but the ball must not only cross the end zone, but pass through the uprights (as in a field goal) as well. If the kicking team recovers its own kickoff in the end zone in any version of the game (something that, as previously mentioned, is impossible in high school football), it scores a touchdown.

Kickoffs into the end zone resulting in touchbacks became much more common in the NFL in 2011 as a result of a rule change. Whereas the kicking team previously kicked the ball off from their 30-yard line, the NFL moved the spot of the kickoff up 5 yards before the 2011 season in an attempt to avoid injuries from high-speed collisions. Only 16 percent of kickoffs in the 2010 season were touchbacks, but that jumped to almost 44 percent after the rule change. [5]

In the current XFL, the standard spot for a touchback is the receiving team's 35-yard line. However, if a kickoff or free kick after a safety first bounces outside the end zone and is then downed by the receiving team in its end zone, the ball is spotted on the receiving team's 15 instead of the 35. [6]


A video of a kickoff and return, played between the Baker Wildcats and Benedictine Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri in 2014.

Under standard rules (i.e., those in leagues other than the XFL), to receive a kickoff and set up a kickoff return, the receiving team sets up its players starting from 10 yards back from the point the ball is kicked from. There are usually one or two players positioned deep (around the goal line) that will attempt to catch or pick up the ball after it is kicked off by the opposing team's kicker. They will then attempt to carry the ball as far as possible upfield, without being tackled or running out of bounds. The other players are to block the kickoff team from getting to their kickoff returner.


In certain leagues consisting of younger players, and in the short-lived professional Alliance of American Football, there are no kickoffs. Teams are automatically awarded the ball at a certain spot on the field. In the AAF, this spot was the 25-yard line of the team receiving possession. [7]

See also


  1. Although the two main governing bodies for Texas high school sports, the University Interscholastic League (mainly public schools) and the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, base their football tules on the NCAA set, both bodies use the 40-yard line as their kickoff spot.

Related Research Articles

A drop kick is a type of kick in various codes of football. It involves a player dropping the ball and then kicking it as it touches the ground.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fumble</span> Live loose ball in gridiron football

A fumble in gridiron football occurs when a player who has possession and control of the ball loses it before being downed (tackled), scoring, or going out of bounds. By rule, it is any act other than passing, kicking, punting, or successful handing that results in loss of ball possession by a player.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Onside kick</span> Short kickoff in gridiron football to try to keep possession of the ball

In gridiron football, an onside kick is a kickoff deliberately kicked short in an attempt by the kicking team to regain possession of the ball. This is in contrast with a typical kickoff, in which the kicking team kicks the ball far downfield in order to maximize the distance the receiving team has to advance the ball in order to score. The risk to the team attempting an onside kick is that if it is unsuccessful the receiving team gets the ball and usually has a much better field position than with a normal kickoff.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fair catch</span> American football rule

A fair catch is a feature of American football and several other codes of football, in which a player attempting to catch a ball kicked by the opposing team – either on a kickoff or punt – is entitled to catch the ball without interference from any member of the kicking team. A player wishing to make a fair catch signals his intent by extending one arm above his head and waving it while the kicked ball is in flight. A ball caught in this manner becomes dead once caught, i.e., the player catching the ball is not entitled to advance the ball, and the receiving team begins its drive at the spot where the ball was caught.

In American football, a touchback is a ruling which is made and signaled by an official when the ball becomes dead on or behind a team's own goal line and the opposing team gave the ball the momentum, or impetus, to travel over or across the goal line but did not have possession of the ball when it became dead. Since the 2018 season, touchbacks have also been awarded in college football on kickoffs that end in a fair catch by the receiving team between its own 25-yard line and goal line. Such impetus may be imparted by a kick, pass, fumble, or in certain instances by batting the ball. A touchback is not a play, but a result of events that may occur during a play. A touchback is the opposite of a safety with regard to impetus since a safety is scored when the ball becomes dead in a team's end zone after that team — the team whose end zone it is — caused the ball to cross the goal line.

This is a glossary of terms used in Canadian football. The Glossary of American football article also covers many terms that are also used in the Canadian version of the game.

  1. Legally positioned at the kick-off or the snap. On kick-offs, members of the kicking team must be behind the kick-off line; members of the receiving team must be at least 10 yards from the kick-off line. On scrimmages, at the snap the offence must be behind the line of scrimmage; the defence must be at least one yard beyond the line of scrimmage.
  2. A player of the kicking team who can legally recover the kick. The kicker and any teammates behind the ball at the time of the kick are onside. Thus on kick-offs all players of the kicking team are onside, but on other kicks usually only the kicker is. The holder on a place kick is not considered onside.
  1. A defensive position on scrimmages, also called free safety. Typical formations include a single safety, whose main duty is to cover wide receivers. See also defensive back.
  2. A two-point score. The defence scores a safety when the offence carries or passes the ball into its own goal area and then fails to run, pass, or kick the ball back into the field of play; when this term is used in this sense, it is also referred to as a safety touch.
<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comparison of American and Canadian football</span> Differences between the two most common types of gridiron football

American and Canadian football are gridiron codes of football that are very similar; both have their origins partly in rugby football, but some key differences exist between the two codes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Single (football)</span> One-point score in Canadian football

In Canadian football, a single is a one-point score that is awarded for certain plays that involve the ball being kicked into the end zone and not returned from it.

Strategy forms a major part of American football. Both teams plan many aspects of their plays (offense) and response to plays (defense), such as what formations they take, who they put on the field, and the roles and instructions each player is given. Throughout a game, each team adapts to the other's apparent strengths and weaknesses, trying various approaches to outmanoeuvre or overpower their opponent in order to win the game. On offense, a team's job on the field is to score through touchdowns and field goals, all while being observant of the defensive strategy of the opposing team. On defense, the team's job on the field is to prevent the offense from scoring touchdowns and field goals, and to possibly intercept the ball.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">American football rules</span>

Gameplay in American football consists of a series of downs, individual plays of short duration, outside of which the ball is dead or not in play. These can be plays from scrimmage – passes, runs, punts or field goal attempts – or free kicks such as kickoffs and fair catch kicks. Substitutions can be made between downs, which allows for a great deal of specialization as coaches choose the players best suited for each particular situation. During a play, each team should have no more than 11 players on the field, and each of them has specific tasks assigned for that specific play.

In gridiron football, clock management is an aspect of game strategy that focuses on the game clock and/or play clock to achieve a desired result, typically near the end of a match. Depending on the game situation, clock management may entail playing in a manner that either slows or quickens the time elapsed from the game clock, to either extend the match or hasten its end. When the desired outcome is to end the match quicker, it is analogous to "running out the clock" seen in many sports. Clock management strategies are a significant part of American football, where an elaborate set of rules dictates when the game clock stops between downs, and when it continues to run.

A squib kick is a term used in American football meaning a short, low, line drive kickoff that usually bounces around on the ground before it can be picked up by a member of the receiving team. The ball is kicked so short that it forces the receiving team's slower players to recover the ball first instead of their faster kick returner. Secondly, the unpredictably bouncing ball may be harder for the receiving team to pick up, allowing more time for kicking team members to get downfield to surround the ball carrier.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comparison of American football and rugby union</span>

A comparison of American football and rugby union is possible because of the games' shared origins, despite their dissimilarities.

A comparison between American football and rugby league is possible because of their shared origins and similar game concepts. Rugby league is arguably the most similar sport to American football after Canadian football: both sports involve the concept of a limited number of downs/tackles and scoring touchdowns/tries takes clear precedence over goal-kicking.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">High school football</span> Secondary school competition in gridiron football

High school football is gridiron football played by high school teams in the United States and Canada. It ranks among the most popular interscholastic sports in both countries, but its popularity is declining, partly due to risk of injury, particularly concussions. According to The Washington Post, between 2009 and 2019, participation in high school football declined by 9.1%. It is the basic level or step of tackle football.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Field goal</span> Means of scoring in gridiron football

A field goal (FG) is a means of scoring in gridiron football. To score a field goal, the team in possession of the ball must place kick, or drop kick, the ball through the goal, i.e., between the uprights and over the crossbar. The entire ball must pass through the vertical plane of the goal, which is the area above the crossbar and between the uprights or, if above the uprights, between their outside edges. American football requires that a field goal must only come during a play from scrimmage while Canadian football retains open field kicks and thus field goals may be scored at any time from anywhere on the field and by any player. The vast majority of field goals, in both codes, are place kicked. Drop kicked field goals were common in the early days of gridiron football but are almost never attempted in modern times. In most leagues, a successful field goal awards three points.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Return specialist</span> American/Canadian football player who specializes in kick returns

A return specialist or kick returner is a player on the special teams unit of a gridiron football team who specializes in returning punts and kickoffs. There are few players who are exclusively return specialists; most also play another position such as wide receiver, defensive back, or running back. The special teams counterpart of a return specialist is a kicking specialist.

The following terms are used in American football, both conventional and indoor. Some of these terms are also in use in Canadian football; for a list of terms unique to that code, see Glossary of Canadian football.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Punt (gridiron football)</span> Kick downfield to the opposing team in gridiron football

In gridiron football, a punt is a kick performed by dropping the ball from the hands and then kicking the ball before it hits the ground. The most common use of this tactic is to punt the ball downfield to the opposing team, usually on the final down, with the hope of giving the receiving team a field position that is more advantageous to the kicking team when possession changes. The result of a typical punt, barring any penalties or extraordinary circumstances, is a first down for the receiving team. A punt is not to be confused with a drop kick, a kick after the ball hits the ground, now rare in both American and Canadian football.


  1. "Regulation 11.16" (PDF). U Sports Football Playing Regulations, 2021–2022 Season. U Sports. September 2021. p. 9. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
  2. "USFL adds new rules for 2023, brings back popular innovations from last season". Fox Sports. April 13, 2023. Retrieved September 14, 2023.
  3. "Ivy League to move kickoffs to 40-yard line" (Press release). NCAA. July 20, 2016. Retrieved July 23, 2016.
  4. "Rule 6: Free Kicks" (PDF). 2023 XFL Rule Book. XFL. pp. 41–45. Retrieved September 13, 2023.
  5. Carr, Paul (January 3, 2012). "Kickoff rule change has big effect on NFL". Retrieved November 11, 2013.
  6. "Rule 11, Section 7, Article 3: Touchback, Ball Next in Play" (PDF). 2023 XFL Rule Book. XFL. p. 80. Retrieved September 13, 2023.
  7. Rothstein, Michael (February 8, 2019). "Everything you need to know about the first Alliance of American Football season". Retrieved February 13, 2019.