What Is A Touchback In Football [NFL & College]

Brad Smith
Brad Smith

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, actually defining what a touchback is can be pretty difficult 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 actually no different. 

Sure, if you asked the question ‘What is a touchback in football?’ to 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

Basically, a touchback occurs when the ball is caught fairly within the end zone, so naturally, they usually happen from kickoffs. In that event, the receiving team will then 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 kick-off 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 simply let the ball cross the goal line, at which point the ball becomes dead. 

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

So, getting the hang of it, right? 

Well, yes, that does sound pretty straightforward because college football rules are different. 

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 saw the creation of the ‘fair catching’ rule. 

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

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

So, next time you’re asked, ‘what is a touchback in college football,’ you’ll be thinking back to this article and be thanking 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 the idea of 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 main 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.’ 

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 
  • A kick hasn’t been touched by the receiving team
  • Any kick (legal or illegal) that touches the receiver’s goalposts (other than a field goal attempt) 
  • When the kicking team try 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 actually quite a novelty in American football. While we have become so used to a rule change now and again, the touchback rule remains pretty much similar to how it was when it was first brought into the game way back in 1926. 

A situation that hasn’t changed in a huge way 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 adopt a similar approach four years later (2016) on a temporary basis. 

That then became the case permanently in 2018 and, the crux of all this was down to concerns over player safety

Certainly an admirable 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 across the world, players and coaches will always find ways around the rules to capitalize on those much-coveted marginal gains.

That was the case when football teams realized their special teams could simply 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 – and here’s where it gets sneaky – in front of their end zone.

Obviously, that would then push them to return it, making the touchback rule almost completely 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.

By introducing the fair catch option from the relatively safe paradise behind the 25-yard line, few teams could be pinned in that kind of way. 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 really don’t like authority, do we?

The NFL’s tweak to their own perception of the rule as recently as 2018 was also designed to ensure dangerous collisions between players running at end full speed were largely 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 anymore. Oh no, all they had to do is hope the ball goes out of bounds or for the designated receiver to simply call a fair catch.

Kickoffs Vs. Punts - The Touchback Difference

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

Pretty much the main reason why the playbook spends so much attention on the touchback rules from a kick-off rather than a punt is 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. 

Still gives me shivers thinking about it. Pittsburgh 2005, yikes. Can’t even remember hitting the ground!

A punt, as you’ll no doubt be aware by now, 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. 

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How Is A Touchback Different From A Safety?

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

So, a safety is when the offensive team commits a foul in their own end zone or when a kick or punt from a team sends the ball behind their own end zone. Also, 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 whatever it is 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, and it then goes off the field through the opponent’s end zone. Also, if the receiving team recovers the ball in their own end zone. 

Clear and obvious, right? Don’t worry; it’s a rule that gets pretty much everyone confused but, by keeping those two key 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!

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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.

What Is The Main Difference Between A Touchback And A Safety?

Effectively, try and think of a touchback as the direct opposite of a safety.

A safety is scored when the DEFENDING team is responsible for the ball becoming dead (either above or behind their own goal).

Final Thoughts

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

Still, hopefully, this article has helped you define exactly 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 here and the ultimate word on how you touchback the ball. Now, you’ll be able to spot them as easy as field goals.

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.