What Is A Touchback In Football [NFL & College]

Table of Contents

While you’ll find many armchair football fans, who think they know better than the elite-level coaches and players we see on our screens every week, defining what a touchback is can be tricky for some people. 

American football is littered with many different terms of descriptions for positions or roles we don’t see too often, and a touchback is no different. 

Sure, if you asked the question, ‘What is a touchback in football?’ a lot of people, they’d be able to roll out some answer that sounds just about right, but the actual football term refers to several different things and events. 

With that in mind, this article (from a weary football coach who has seen it all, from college football to hopefuls in high school) is designed to try and help you become an expert on exactly what it means. 

Football Term: Touchback

A touchback occurs when the ball is caught reasonably within the end zone, so naturally; they usually happen from kickoffs. In that event, the receiving team will line up with the ball from their 25-yard line. 

Outside of kickoffs, the ball will start from the 20-yard line. 

The most common use way for something like this to happen is either at the kickoff stage or from a punt. At that point, the receiving player can enact the touchback rule by doing one of two things. 

For example, they can kneel within the end zone or let the ball cross the goal line, at which point it dies. 

If the player in possession of the ball does not hold onto it, the kicking team can recover it and potentially score a touchdown. You don’t want to see them in your end zone after failing to catch the ball; it’s a gutting feeling. 

Is it so? Getting the hang of it. 

Yes, that sounds pretty straightforward because college football rules are different. 

The Purpose of Touchback

The purpose of a touchback is to benefit the receiving team by avoiding a possible turnover or negative yardage. It also prevents the kicking team from getting a chance to score or gaining a field position advantage.

Touchbacks also help to ensure player safety by preventing unnecessary returns that can result in injuries.

College Football Touchback rule

College football rules don’t differ from the NFL too much, but there is one big exception introduced reasonably recently. Indeed, the 2018-19 season created the ‘fair catching’ rule. 

With that in mind, any fair catch from a kick-off or free-kick between the goal line and the 25-yard line belonging to the receiving team is a touchback. 

EG: If a team calls a fair catch on their 20-yard line, the play is a touchback, so the ball goes to their 25-yard line. 

So, next time you’re asked, ‘what is a touchback in college football,’ you’ll think back to this article and thank us. Just think about how clever you’re going to sound. 

NFL Touchback Rule

Much like any rule, the NFL rulebook offers extensive reading on touchbacks. After all, as the leading voice for American football, they need to be clear and concise about anything that happens on the field of play. 

The primary definition of the touchback rule is when ‘the ball is dead on or behind the goal line a team is defending, provided that the impetus comes from the opponent and that it is not a touchdown or an incomplete pass.’ 

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List Of Instances When A Touchback Can Happen

  • The ball is dead and in the opponent’s possession in their end zone
  • The ball is out of bounds and behind the goal line 
  • The receiving team hasn’t touched a kick
  • Any kick (legal or illegal) that touches the receiver’s goalposts (other than a field goal attempt) 
  • When the kicking team tries to interfere with the receiver’s attempts to catch the ball
  • When a player on the kicking team catches illegally and is then the ball carrier that takes it across the opposition line


Should any situation listed above happen, it will result in a touchback. Effectively, look out for them in the event of a kickoff or punt or when the ball goes out of bounds.

Rules Changes For When A Touchback Occurs

The touchback ruling is quite a novelty in American football. While we have become so used to a rule change now and again, the touchback rule remains similar to when it was first brought into the game in 1926. 

A situation that hasn’t changed hugely for over 100 years. Who’d have thought it? 

During the roaring twenties (aren’t we hoping for the same thing after that the year we’ve all had?), any kick that went out of bounds in the end zone would be a touchback. Indeed, that remained the case across all types of American football until 2012 – some 86 years later – until the NCAA got involved!

The NCAA changed the spot of the ball from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line. That then seemed to spark a chain reaction as the NFL would temporarily adopt a similar approach four years later (2016). 

That became the case permanently in 2018, the crux of all this concerned player safety

Certainly a worthy cause, both leagues appeared to surmise that – by affording the receiving team a better position on the field when a touchback occurs – they’d surely be more inclined to take one and thus minimize the number of returns. 

When The New Touchback Rule Backfired

Like in any sport worldwide, players and coaches will always find ways around the rules to capitalize on those much-coveted marginal gains.

That was when football teams realized their special teams could punt the ball at a very high altitude for a short distance. When executed correctly, that would force the receiving team to catch the ball behind their 5-yard line, but here’s where it gets sneaky in front of their end zone.

That would then push them to return it, making the touchback rule almost entirely redundant.

Touchback Rule: The Battle From The Leagues

So, when something like that happens, and clever coaches find ways around things, you have to expect the relevant leagues to battle back, and, you guessed it, that’s exactly what the NCAA was trying to do in 2012.

Few teams could be pinned in that way by introducing the fair catch option from the relatively safe paradise behind the 25-yard line. Very clever, I must say. Still, given all I’ve seen from football coaches and their use of special teams over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some genius come up with another plan to get around it in the future.

Ah, football coaches. We don’t like authority, do we?

The NFL’s tweak to their perception of the rule as recently as 2018 was also designed to ensure dangerous collisions between players running at the end full speed were essentially a thing of the past.

As of 2018, the player on the receiving team wouldn’t have to kneel in the end zone for a touchback. Oh no, all they had to do was hope the ball went out of bounds or for the designated receiver to call a fair catch.

Kickoffs Vs. Punts - The Touchback Difference

There is a method to the madness if you’re a little confused. 

The playbook mainly spends so much attention on the touchback rules from a kickoff rather than a punt because of the proximity between the two teams. 

On a kickoff, players are naturally further away from each other (duh), and the fifteen yards of green space can give top-level athletes all the room they need to build up momentum. If you’ve ever been tackled by a big old unit of a player, you’ll know exactly what I mean. 

It still gives me shivers thinking about it. Pittsburgh 2005, yikes. I can’t even remember hitting the ground!

As you’ll no doubt be aware by now, a punt has the two teams lining up much closer to each other. While you’ve still got to be prepared for quite the physical battle when dealing with what the punting team has to offer, there’s naturally more safety because there’s less room to run into and build up ahead of speed. 

How Is A Touchback Different From A Safety?

If you’re new to American football – I have two things to say. Firstly, thanks for making it this far, and secondly, we’re about to get a little technical. Please stick with us; you’ve made it this far. 

So, safety is when the offensive team commits a foul in their end zone or when a kick or punt from a team sends the ball behind their end zone and if the player in possession of the ball is out of bounds behind the goal line. 

How is this different from a touchback? Well, keen football fans will always tell you to consider which team has the ball and what end zone you’re looking at is taking place in. 


  • Safety: When an offensive player with possession of the ball is tackled within their end zone or if the football goes out of bounds across the back of the end zone. 
  • Touchback: When an offensive player loses the ball, it goes off the field through the opponent’s end zone. Also, if the receiving team recovers the ball in their end zone.


Clear and obvious, right? Don’t worry; it’s a rule that gets pretty much everyone confused, but by keeping those two critical things in mind, you’ll soon be able to tell the difference between a touchback and a safety with your eyes closed!

If you’ve seen some of the referees I know to have messed that up, you might have thought they’d have their eyes closed too!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can the kicking team recover a touchback?

No, the kicking team can’t recover a touchback. A touchback occurs when the ball is dead in the endzone, and possession of the ball is given to the receiving team.

Can a team score a touchdown on a touchback?

No, a team cannot score a touchdown on a touchback. To score a touchdown, the ball must be carried or caught by a player in the endzone, and this only occurs on kickoff or punt returns, interceptions, fumbles, or pass receptions.

How many points is a touchback worth in football?

A touchback is not worth any points in football, and it is a way of ending a play and giving possession of the ball to the opposing team.

How Is Responsibility Determined In A Touchback?

Basically, American football rules dictate that responsibility for a touchback is determined by deciding which gave the ball the impetus to over the goal line, whether while a player is in possession or not.

Can a player on the receiving team deliberately allow the ball to go into the endzone to avoid a return?

Yes, a player on the receiving team can deliberately allow the ball to go into the endzone to avoid a return. This is known as taking a knee, resulting in a touchback.

How Do They Decide What The Impetus Is?

Generally, the impetus is considered to be a kick, pass, or even when someone fumbles the ball.

Is A Touchback Part Of The Playbook In American Football?

A touchback certainly isn’t considered a play, so to speak, but it is seen as something that requires as a result of the events of one. 

It’s basically a chain reaction.

Is a touchback considered a turnover?

No, a touchback is not considered a turnover, and a turnover occurs when a team loses possession of the ball without scoring, such as on a fumble.

Final Thoughts

The touchback is probably something you’ve seen for years without grasping the key differences, particularly if you’re only a casual football fan. 

Still, hopefully, this article has helped you define precisely what it is. 

Remember, a touchback is when the ball becomes dead or is behind the goal line a team is defending. As long as the impetus comes from the opposing team, it’s a touchback. 

The ruling has only changed a couple of times since 1926. It is an intrinsic part of the game, and now, you should be close to being an expert on the catch rule. 

Imagine how clever you’re going to sound! We’ve thrown you a forward pass and the ultimate word on how you touchback the ball. Now, you can spot them as quickly as field goals.

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Brad Smith
Brad Smith
Brad Smith has been coaching high school Football for 6 years in Florida. He and his wife have 3 beautiful children who he hopes will become the first Jaguars to win a Superbowl. Other than Football, Brad loves American litterature, parenting, gardening, and home remodeling.