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. 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 becomes dead behind the goal line without being advanced beyond the goal line by a player of the receiving team. 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. Note that 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 because the impetus would then be charged to the receiving team.
- 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. However, in the NFL, a kickoff is considered live until it is downed by the receiving team. If a kicked-off ball in the NFL goes untouched into the end zone and then is recovered by a member of the kicking team, it's a touchdown for the kicking team.
- 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 its own 25-yard line in college football, and the 25 yard-line for professional football, on kickoffs and free kicks after a safety as of the 2012 season. 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.)
On March 23, 2016, the NFL announced that it would award a touchback line at the 25-yard line instead of the previous 20-yard line and much discussion and analysis on the impact of this change has emerged. This new rule will be re-evaluated after the 2016 NFL season.
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 July 2016, the NCAA announced that it had approved the Ivy League to test an experimental kickoff rule in conference play in the 2016 season. Under this rule, kickoffs will be taken from the 40-yard line instead of the 35, and touchbacks will be marked at the 20-yard line instead of the 25. The rule will be re-evaluated in February 2017.
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, where the other team receives possession of the ball depends on the spot from which the ball has been kicked. In NCAA football, the ball will be placed either on the twenty or the line of scrimmage of the play in which the attempt was made; in the NFL, either the twenty 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 Massachusetts and Texas, which use college football rules), 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.
- National Football League. 2012 Official Playing Rules and Casebook. Retrieved September 12, 2013.
- The anatomy of the new touchback rule – https://412sportsanalytics.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/the-anatomy-of-the-new-touchback-rule/
- NFL passes automatic ejection rule for 2016 season – http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000646837/article/nfl-passes-automatic-ejection-rule-for-2016-season
- "Ivy League to move kickoffs to 40-yard line" (Press release). NCAA. July 20, 2016. Retrieved July 23, 2016.