What Is a Touchback in Football? A Guide to How They Work

Football player dives into the end zone.

Most football fans take great pride in their knowledge of the game and can easily define a touchback. But if you asked these same fans to list all the different scenarios that can result in a touchback, they would have a much harder time. This is because the touchback, as simple as it seems, can happen in many different ways.

So what is a touchback in football?

Touchbacks in football occur predominately on kickoffs when the ball lands or a fair catch is called in the end zone. If a touchback occurs on a kickoff, the receiving team starts with the ball on their 25-yard line. In all other instances, the ball goes out to the 20-yard line.

The rule might sound simple but we’re only scratching the surface. To learn more about how the rule varies between college and professional ball, we encourage you to read the rest of this article.

How Touchbacks Happen in Football

There are many different ways for a touchback to happen in American football. The college football rules are slightly different and I will mention them later. It’s worth noting that a touchback can’t happen to the offensive team, because they must be the ones who take the ball over the goal line.

The most common way for a touchback to happen is on kickoffs or punts. The receiving player can force a touchback by either kneeling in the end zone or by letting the ball cross the goal line.

If a player fielding the ball doesn’t hold onto it, the kicking team can recover it and score a touchdown.

As a note, the NFL made a rule change that I will mention further down that makes kneeling in the end zone unnecessary. In the NFL a player only needs to let the ball cross the goal line on a kickoff for a touchback.

Because of this, kick returners will sometimes allow the ball to land and bounce toward the receiving team’s goal line. The purpose of this is to try and get a touchback, so you can start at your 25-yard line instead of deep in your own territory.

While this often works, it gives the kicking team time to run downfield and potentially pin the receiving team deep into their side of the field.

If a player on the kicking team makes contact with the football, while they are in contact with the end zone, a touchback will be ruled.

Touchbacks can happen on offensive possessions as well. They occur when the offensive team turns the ball over to the defense in the end zone.

For example, if Team A is about to score and throws an interception in their opponent’s end zone, and Team B downs the ball in that same end zone, it’s a touchback.

This is also the case if Team A fumbles the ball into the opponent’s end zone and Team B recovers it in the same end zone. Team B must stay behind the goal line, if they leave the end zone and go back into it, then a safety will be ruled.

If the fumble happens outside of the end zone the defensive player must wait for the ball to be inside the end zone to be awarded a touchback.

If he grabs it outside of the end zone and his momentum carries him into the end zone it is not a touchback. It is instead placed at the spot he touched the ball and possession changes.

The defense can also earn a touchback if the offense fumbles the ball in and out of the end zone. The defense can’t bat or kick the ball out of bounds without getting a penalty.

NFL Touchback Rules

Football sits on tee with players in background.

The NFL rulebook has a very specific breakdown of all the types of touchbacks. This is not surprising since as the richest and most popular American football league in the world, the NFL must set the standard for the way the game is played.

The NFL defines a touchback as when: “the ball is dead on or behind the goal line a team is defending, provided that the impetus comes from an opponent, and that it is not a touchdown or an incomplete pass”.

The rulebook also gives a breakdown of when touchbacks can be ruled as seen below. These scenarios can only occur if the ball was sent over the goal line by the offensive or kicking team. A touchback occurs when:

  1. The ball is dead in the opponent’s possession in its end zone
  1. The ball is out of bounds behind the goal line
  1. A kick has not been touched by the receiving team and the ball:
    • Touches the ground on or behind the receivers goal line
    • Touches a player on the kicking team who is touching the ball on or behind the receiver’s goal line
    • Touches a player on the kicking team who has touched the ground on or behind the receiver’s goal line and has not re-established himself in play
  1. Any legal or illegal kick, other than one which scores a field goal, touches the receiver’s goal posts
  1. If the kicking team interferes with the receiver’s ability to catch the ball or call fair catch while they are in their end zone
  1. If a player of the kicking team illegally catches or recovers a scrimmage kick in the field of play, and carries the ball across the goal line, or touches the goal line with any part of his body while in possession of the ball

A touchback is called if any of these scenarios occur. If a team is award a touchback off a kickoff, that team starts with the ball on their 25-yard line. If a touchback occurs but not on a kickoff, then the ball goes out to their 20-yard line.

College Football Touchback Rules

The touchback rules for college football are basically the same as in the NFL with one obvious exception. The fair catch ruling that was made recently in the 2018-2019 season.

According to this new rule, any fair catch on a kickoff or free-kick made between the receiving team’s goal line and the 25-yard line is ruled a touchback. For example, if a team called a fair catch on their 20-yard line, the play is ruled a touchback and the ball goes to their 25-yard line.

This rule was put into place for player safety, as the kickoff is the most dangerous play in football.

Making this fair catch rule meant that more kickoffs would result in touchbacks. More touchbacks and fewer returns mean less risk of injury.

How the Touchback Rules Have Evolved

Football teams form a pile.

Unlike many other rules in football, the touchback has remained relatively unchanged since the game was created. There was a rule added in 1926 that made any kick that goes out of bounds in the end zone an automatic touchback.

But besides that rule, the only modern-day exceptions come from the 2016 and 2018 seasons in the NFL, and the 2012 season in the NCAA.

In 2012 the NCAA moved the spot of the ball on a touchback on kickoffs, changing the spot from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line. And the NFL soon followed suit in 2016. Making it an experimental rule until 2018 when it was changed permanently.

The reason for the change was the same as the fair catch rule – player safety. The two leagues assumed that by giving the receiving team better field position on a touchback, they would be more willing to take a touchback and cut down on returns.

This ruling backfired as kicking teams realized that they could kick balls high and short. This forced the receiving team to catch the ball behind the 5-yard line but in front of the goal line.

With a touchback unavailable, the receiving team was forced to return the kick or risk the football not bouncing into their team’s end zone.

If the ball took a fortuitous bounce for the kicking team, then they could trap the receiving team deep on their side of the field.

The NCAA’s solution was the fair catch rule mentioned above. The receiving team could call a fair catch behind the 25-yard line, eliminating the possibility of being pinned. And cutting down on dangerous return plays.

The NFL also made a small change to touchbacks on kickoffs in 2018 which made kneeling in the end zone unnecessary. The old rules stated that a receiver would have to declare himself “down” by kneeling in the end zone.

Under the new rule, the receiver would no longer have to take a knee in the end zone for a touchback. The ball would only need to land in the end zone and for the receiving player to call a fair catch.

The hope for this rule change was to cut down on the number of collisions that involved players running into each other at full speed.

The reason these touchback changes are so focused on the kickoff as opposed to a punt could be because of where the players line up. On a kickoff, teams are set up with 15 or more yards of distance between them.

Whereas on a punt they are directly lined up with their blockers, cutting down on violent collisions.

Touchback vs Safety

A safety occurs when the offense commits a foul in its end zone, knocks the ball out of bounds while in the end zone, or is ruled down while in possession of the ball in the end zone.

Safeties can happen on sacks or tackles by the defensive team when the tackled player has not left the end zone. If the offensive player leaves the end zone and then gets tackled back into the end zone by a defensive player, they are ruled down at the spot where they last had forward momentum.

In rare cases, a safety can also be called when a player steps out of bounds in the end zone while in possession of the ball. This happened in 2008 to quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who ran out of the back of the end zone while escaping pass rushers.

The team who gets called for a safety has to kick the ball from their 20-yard line. Safeties are terrible to give up because the other team scores two points and you give up possession of the ball.

It can be easy to confuse touchbacks and safeties because they both occur inside the end zone. You always need to consider which team has possession of the ball and which end zone this is taking place.

If an offensive player is downed with the ball in their end zone or the ball goes out of bounds through the back of the end zone, then it’s a safety.

If an offensive player loses possession of the ball and it goes out of bounds through the defending team’s end zone or the defending team recovers the ball in their end zone, then it’s a touchback.


What Is the Goal Line in Football?

In football, the goal line is a white line that signifies the front of the end zone. Any ball that touches or breaks the plane of the goal line on a kickoff is ruled a touchback. The same goes for touchdowns; the ball doesn’t have to fully enter the end zone to be ruled a touchdown.

What Is the Field of Play Called in Football?

The field of play in American football is typically just called the ‘field’ but it is also known as the ‘gridiron’. This names comes from the early days of football when the fields were marked in a grid/checkboard pattern.  

What Is a Field Goal in Football?

A field goal is a place kick that results in three points when kicked successfully. Field goals are almost always taken on fourth down and when the offensive team is in their opponent’s side of the field. If a team is in field goal range, they will almost always elect to attempt the kick than to punt the ball away.

What Is Special Teams in Football?

Special teams includes all the players that play during kicking plays. These players are responsible for returning kickoffs, kicking field goals, blocking punts, etc. Special teams often gets overlooked but plays a large role in who wins and loses football games.  

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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