What Is a Touchback in Football? (with Video)

Philadelphia Eagles v Minnesota Vikings

The NFL Touchback Rule

The NFL rulebook explains a touchback occurs when the football is free kicked into the end zone and the ball is either not advanced, either by the receiving team taking a knee to "down" the football, or the football touches the ground in the end zone, exits the field through the end zone, or hits the goal post, the result is the receiving team begins play from their own 25-yard line. This used to be the 20-yard line until a rule change in the 2010s.

The touchback rule only applies to American football games, and the NFL rule book article 5 explains the different ways a touchback can be achieved:

  • A kicked ball is not touched by the receiving team, and the ball touches the ground in the end zone.
  • A kicked ball goes out of bounds behind the receiving team’s goal line or goes out of the back of the endzone
  • A kicked ball strikes the receiving team’s field goal post, uprights, or cross bar
  • A kicked ball is downed in the end zone by the receiving team

These football rules are standard among the NCAA and high school football.


Jacksonville Jaguars v Oakland Raiders

A touchback gives the offensive team possession on their 20-yard line and 25-yard line in college.

In American football -- especially at the college football and professional levels -- often kicks the ball into the opponent's end zone. If the returner catches it, he can either attempt to run the ball out of the end zone or kneel down and end play. If he kneels, it is a touchback, and his team gets the ball at their 25 yard line.

He can also let the ball go through the end zone. Once the ball goes out of bounds in the end zone, it is a touchback. The kicking team can touch the ball at any time which means if the receiver doesn't touch the ball and a member of the kicking team gets possession of the ball, they could score a touchdown.

Punt Coverage

In the NFL, a punted ball does not have to enter the end zone for a touchback to occur, though this is often the case. The punting team player who attempts to down the football before the goal line must keep both feet outside the goal line.

If the punting team player touches the football with their foot on or inside the goal line, then a touchback occurs. Even if the punting team player touches the football as it bounces toward the goal line, a touchback occurs if somehow the football continues to roll or bounce into the end zone.

Touchback on a Turnover

Touchbacks don’t just occur from special teams and kicking plays, they can occur from fumbles and interceptions:

If the offense fumbles into the opponent's end zone, a defensive recovery in the end zone results in a touchback. Another touchback happens if the offense fumbles and the ball goes out of bounds in the opponent's end zone. And a touchback results if a defensive player intercepts the ball in the end zone and is tackled inside the goal line, or kneels down to end the play.

Difference Between a Safety and a Touchback

Safeties and touchbacks both occur in the end zone, but a safety is a defensive play and rewards the defense with two points for their team.

Safeties occur when the ball carrier is outside their own end zone and decides to enter it. If they are tackled behind the goal line, a safety results and two (2) points are awarded to the defensive team.

A safety also occurs if the offense fumbles into their own end zone and the recovering offensive player is downed in the end zone.

The next play after a safety is a free kick from the conceding team to the defensive team.

What is a fair catch?

Detroit Lions v Houston Texans

A touchback gives the offensive team possession on their 20-yard line and 25-yard line in college.

A fair catch occurs when a kick returner in the field of play chooses to take the ball where it is caught and foregos their return. This is usually when the opposing team is close to tackling the returner. The ball is then placed at the field position where the fair catch was called and the offensive team begins their drive.