What Is a Touchback in Football?
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 20-yard line.
The touchback rule only applies to American football, and the NFL rule book article 5 explains the different ways a free kick crosses the goal line:
- is not touched by the receiving team, and the ball touches the ground in the end zone.
- goes out of bounds behind the receiving team’s goal line
- strikes the receiving team’s goal post, uprights, or cross bar or
- is downed in the end zone by the receiving team
The NCAA Football Touchback Rule
The result of a touchback in NCAA Football is to put the ball back in play at the receiving team's 25-yard line.
From Article 7 of the NCAA Football rulebook:
When a free kick touches the ground on or behind the receiving team's goal line, and the receiving team has not touched the football, then the ball becomes "dead" and results in a touchback at the 25-yard line.
In American football -- especially at the college and professional levels -- the kicker executing the kickoff 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 20 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.
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 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 results 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.
Wade Harle began writing professionally in 2011 and holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Iowa State University. His work on sports and other topics has been published on various websites.