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 (i.e., in an end zone) and the opposing team gave the ball the momentum, or impetus, to travel over or across the goal line. 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 defending team is responsible for the ball becoming dead on or behind its own goal line.
Examples of instances where a touchback would be awarded include when:
- A kickoff or punt enters the end zone and is downed by the receiving team without the ball being advanced beyond the goal line. Thus, a player on the receiving team could attempt to advance the ball out of his own end zone, but the original impetus from the kick remains as long as the ball does not completely cross the goal line into the field of play. If a kick is fielded by the receiving team in its end zone, is advanced beyond the goal line, and then the ball carrier retreats back into his own end zone where the ball is downed, it is a safety. If a member of the kicking team recovers a kick-off in the end zone, the play is ruled as a touchdown.
- In college football, any kickoff that ends in a fair catch by the receiving team inside its own 25-yard line.
- In high school football, any kicked ball that crosses the plane of the goal line, unless it is a successful field goal.
- A kickoff or punt touches the ground in the receiving team's end zone before being touched by a player of the receiving team. If a kicked-off ball goes into the end zone and then is recovered by a member of the kicking team, it's merely a touchdown for the kicking team, when the ball is touched by the receivers.
- A kickoff or punt goes out of bounds behind or over the receiving team's goal line or touches the goal posts or crossbar (and does not score a field goal).
- A ball carrier fumbles the ball within the field of play forward into his opponents end zone and the loose ball then goes out of bounds behind or above his opponent's goal line, is recovered and downed by an opposing player in the end zone, or touches the pylon. The opposing team would be awarded the touchback.
- A defensive player intercepts a forward pass in his own end zone and the ball becomes dead behind or over the goal line. Like the instance of a kickoff or punt fielded in an end zone, the intercepting player can attempt to advance the ball but it is still a touchback as long as the ball never completely crosses the goal line into the field of play before it is downed.
- A blocked punt goes back into the end zone and the defensive team intentionally bats or kicks the ball out the back of the end zone. Offense must decline penalty.
In standard outdoor American football, the team awarded the touchback receives possession of the ball at either its own 20-yard line or 25-yard line, depending on the specific type of play. The spot is the 25-yard line in both college and professional football on kickoffs and free kicks after a safety, with the NCAA having changed from the 20 in 2012 and the NFL making the same change in 2018. The NCAA made a further rule change effective in its 2018 season, treating a fair catch on a kickoff, or free kick following a safety, between the receiving team's goal line and 25-yard line as a touchback. All other touchback situations in both rule sets result in possession at the 20.
In high school football, all touchbacks are spotted on the 20 except in Texas, which bases its high school rules on the NCAA rule set.
In arena football, and other indoor football games, a touchback results in the team awarded the touchback receiving the football at its own 3-yard line. This can result from any of the above events except for punting, which is not a part of arena football. (In arena football, a kicked ball usually bounces back into play off of the rebound nets, but the above can still occur when the ball lands in the slack nets behind the goalposts after a kickoff, passes under the rebound nets and out of play, or in the event of fumbles and interceptions.)
If a defensive player gains possession of the ball during a play between his own five-yard line and goal line and the player's original momentum carries him into the end zone, there is no touchback. Instead, the ball is dead at the point where possession changed. In the National Football League, this rule applies regardless of whether possession is gained inside the five-yard line.
In Canadian football the term touchback is not used. The failure to advance a kicked ball out of the goal area results in a single point being scored by the kickers, as well as possession by the receivers at their 35-yard line or at the point the ball was kicked from. A turn-over by fumble or interception in the defense's goal area that is not advanced back into the field of play, or a kickoff untouched out of bounds in the end zone, or a kick that touches the goal posts, crossbar, or goal assembly results in a scrimmage on the 25-yard line with no points awarded. If a player's momentum causes the ball to be in the end zone, the ball is treated as if it was recovered in the end zone.
Six- and eight-man football
A special rule applies in college football and the NFL with regard to field goal attempts. If a missed field goal occurs in these leagues, the spot at which the non-kicking team receives possession of the ball depends on the spot from which the ball had been kicked. In NCAA football, the ball will be placed either on the 20 or the line of scrimmage of the play in which the attempt was made; in the NFL, either the 20 or the place from which the ball was kicked. (In either case, the ball goes to the spot which is further from the goal line.) The purpose of this rule is to discourage low-percentage, long-range field goal attempts and to deemphasize the advantage which can accrue when only one team has a kicker who has a reasonable possibility of success from a great distance. In American high school football (except in Texas), the missed field goal, regardless of where attempted on the field, results in a touchback as long as the attempt breaks the plane of the goal line, and in arena football, the field goal is treated as if it were a punt.