In this Dec. 15, 2019 Rams punter Johnny Hekker kicks an onside kick against the Dallas Cowboys. The NFL is considering a number of rule changes, including an alternative to the onside kick. Roger Steinman/Associated Press


NFL owners will consider proposals Thursday to give teams a fourth-and-15 alternative to the onside kick, and to implement a modified instant replay system as a preseason experiment, potentially handing increased authority to the replay assistant to communicate with the on-field referee.

Owners are scheduled to speak via video conference, their second such meeting since last week. The two remote sessions replace the owners’ May meeting that was canceled because of the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

Thursday’s meeting gives the owners a chance to debate the proposed rule changes, made by the NFL’s competition committee and individual teams, and to vote on them if they opt to do so.

The owners, in a last-minute change, are not expected to vote Thursday on two instant-replay proposals that had been made by the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Chargers. Those teams had proposed either a “sky judge,” an official who would be stationed by a video monitor in the press box at each game and empowered to overturn any obviously erroneous call by the on-field officials, or a technology adviser to the referee, a video official with more limited authority.

Those proposals had been for regular-season play, meaning either would have been enacted for the upcoming 2020 season if it had received the necessary 24 votes Thursday.

But by Wednesday afternoon, a person familiar with the deliberations said the focus had shifted to a preseason experiment that would allow the replay assistant to communicate with the referee regarding on-field issues. That represented a scaled-down version of the recommendation by the competition committee that the owners enact either the sky judge proposal or the technology adviser proposal – or some blend of the two – as a preseason experiment.

The NFL continues to grapple with issues related to officiating and instant replay. The proposals by the Ravens and Chargers had been made in the aftermath of the league and competition committee deciding last month to abandon the rule that made pass interference reviewable by instant replay last season. The owners will not even take a renewal vote Thursday on that rule, which was ratified last year for one season only.

Coaches last offseason were supportive of the concept of a sky judge, also called a booth umpire. But league leaders were wary, in part because they wondered how they would find enough qualified video officials to make the system function smoothly. So owners voted instead last offseason to make pass interference calls and non-calls subject to replay review in the wake of the botched call in the 2018 NFC championship game that helped send the Los Angeles Rams rather than the New Orleans Saints to the Super Bowl.

But players, coaches and fans were displeased with how the new replay system functioned last season. Teams were overwhelmingly against renewing the rule, according to the results of a postseason survey conducted by the competition committee, and the committee and NFL opted to allow the rule to expire without a ready replacement in place. Giving expanded authority to the current replay assistants would keep the league from having to find enough qualified video officials to serve as sky judges.

The fourth-and-15 alternative to the onside kick was proposed by the Philadelphia Eagles and is being considered by the owners for a second straight offseason. A similar proposal was made last offseason by the Denver Broncos but was not approved, with some owners dismissing the idea as a gimmick.

Under this proposal, a team could attempt a fourth-and-15 play from its 25-yard line rather than kicking off, up to twice per game. If that team gets a first down, it retains possession and its drive continues. If it fails, the opposing team takes possession at the point at which the play ended.

A team would have to announce its intention beforehand but, in this version of the proposal, does not have to be trailing in the game. A team still could choose to attempt an onside kick, if it prefers. But a team could not change its mind and elect to kick off if it receives a penalty on its fourth-and-15 play.

The fourth-and-15 option could not be used in overtime, teams were informed Wednesday in a summary of changes to the proposal made by the Eagles.

The proposal is believed to have generated more interest than it did last year. Successful onside kicks have become rare since the implementation of safety rules on kickoffs, designed to keep the kickoff from being eliminated from the sport entirely. Now that the kickoff has been made safer, the fourth-and-15 concept has evolved into a prospective replacement for the onside kick.

The Eagles withdrew another proposal to restore overtime to 15 minutes, from the current 10 minutes, in the preseason and regular season. The competition committee made two proposals, one to expand defenseless-player protections given to a kickoff or punt returner (adding the period after the returner catches the football but before having a chance to avoid or ward off a tackler) and another to eliminate late-game clock manipulation with multiple dead-ball penalties with the clock running (as the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans did last season).

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