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John Elway explains why Broncos proposed onside kickoff rule change

PHOENIX -- What seemed radical at one point eventually becomes routine.

For those who are not on board with the Broncos' proposal to allow a trailing team in the fourth quarter one opportunity to execute a fourth-and-15 play in lieu of an onside kickoff, those words should be heeded.

Yes, such a change to the structure of the kickoff seems gimmicky on the surface. But as President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway noted, all this does is give teams roughly the same odds that they had on onside kickoffs prior to last year's rules changes that forced members of the kicking team to operate from a standing start.

The fact that the Broncos found themselves behind way too often in the last two years crystallized the notion that change was necessary.

"Well, I think that when you look at it, it probably came out of the fact that we've struggled the last couple of years and therefore have been behind in the fourth quarter," said Elway, who arrived in Arizona a week before the Annual League Meeting to take part in Competition Committee discussions.

"I think when you look at the statistics and the analytics behind it, with the new kickoff rules, the recoveries have [dropped] in half, from 14 percent down to 7 percent. I think there were four out of 52 that were recovered last year. So it's eliminated the onside kickoff to a certain extent."

Since 2008, fourth-and-15 plays have been converted just over 20 percent of the time. The Alliance of American Football uses a similar concept for onside kickoffs, with a team getting a fourth-and-12 play from its own 28-yard line.

The success of that initiative offers evidence that this sort of rules change can restore the pre-2018 onside kickoff odds.

"At least on fourth-and-15, it gives a team a chance to be able to pick up the first down, continue with the ball and score and get back in the football game," Elway said. "When you're trying to do it with an onside kick, it's very, very difficult with the new [kickoff] rules. So I'm excited about it.

"There is some momentum with it. We'll see how the owners like it and go from there."

That said, Elway admits that this year is "not a big year for rules changes." Two of the Broncos' proposals focus on instant-replay, and one component of that -- to make all extra points and two-point conversion attempts subject to automatic replay review -- was incorporated into two larger replay proposals put forth by the Competition Committee.

"There's not a whole lot there," Elway said. "I think the biggest thing always goes back to replay and what's reviewed and what's not going to be reviewed. Up to this point in time, we haven't reviewed penalties on the field."

With instant replay, the NFL must maintain a delicate balance. In some circles, there is a desire to make more plays reviewable, in part to try and help prevent situations like the pass-interference non-call in the NFC Championship Game that likely prevented a Saints win over the Rams.

"Obviously there's the outrage with the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, [which] made a cry for more replay and a broader scope of what replay can review," Elway said. "And that's the biggest thing: How far do we go with it?"

But more replay reviews could also mean an increase in stoppages and game length, which would work against the NFL's recent efforts to quicken the pace of games. Recent tweaks yielded a three-minute, 51-second reduction in game time since 2015.

"That's always a big part of it, too,” he said. “When you look at it, we've not visited the fact of giving coaches more reviews. It's staying there.”

Elway noted that an increase in plays that could be challenged might have the benefit of reducing game time, as an increased array of opportunities to challenge could make teams more cautious in how they throw their red flags. 

"We even looked at the fact that if we broaden what coaches can review, that maybe that even speeds the game up, because maybe they'll save some and not challenge as many as they have in the past,” Elway said. “So there are always unintended consequences that we try to figure out before a rule would go in."

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