What is the Definition of A Touchback in American Football?

A touchback is a crucial aspect of American football that can impact the game significantly. It is a ruling made by an official when a football becomes dead on or behind a team’s goal line, and the opposing team is responsible for the ball’s momentum. Commonly occurring in kickoffs, touchbacks can also take place during punts, interceptions, and fumble recoveries. Understanding touchbacks and the conditions that lead to them sheds light on the strategic moves teams employ during games.

Usually, a touchback is the outcome of a receiving team’s decision not to advance the ball from the end zone, or the kicking team’s successful effort to pin the offensive team deep in their territory. A touchback can impact field position and, ultimately, game strategy. It provides the receiving team a fresh start, with the ball placed at their 25-yard line after kickoffs or the 20-yard line in other situations. These rules help ensure a fast-paced and exciting game that keeps fans at the edge of their seats.

Key Takeaways

  • Touchbacks occur when the ball becomes dead in a team’s end zone and the opposing team is responsible for its momentum.
  • Receiving the ball, kickoffs, punts, interceptions, and fumble recoveries can lead to touchbacks.
  • Touchbacks influence field position and result in the ball being placed at the 25-yard line after a kickoff or the 20-yard line in other instances.

The Basics of a Touchback


A touchback in American football occurs when the ball is deemed dead on or behind a team’s own goal line (in their end zone) and the opposing team provided the momentum or impetus for the ball to cross the goal line, but did not have possession when the ball became dead. Touchbacks typically happen during kickoffs when the ball is caught or lands reasonably within the end zone. In such cases, the receiving team will begin their offensive drive at their 25-yard line. Apart from kickoffs, if a touchback occurs, the ball will start from the 20-yard line.

Difference Between Touchdown

A key difference between a touchback and a touchdown lies in possession and the objective of each team. In the case of a touchdown, a team aims to score by carrying or catching the ball in the opposition’s end zone. A touchdown is worth six points and is the primary way to score in American football.

Conversely, a touchback does not involve either team scoring points. Instead, it represents a change of possession where the defending team regains control of the football without having returned it from their end zone. As stated earlier, touchbacks often occur during kickoffs or punts when the receiving team either catches the ball in their end zone or allows it to land and become dead within the end zone.

Conditions for a Touchback

Kickoff and Punt Rules

A touchback occurs during a kickoff when the ball is caught or lands within the end zone without being touched by the receiving team. The receiving player can signal a fair catch or take a knee once the ball is caught, resulting in a touchback. Following a touchback on a kickoff, the receiving team starts their possession on their own 25-yard line.

In the case of a punt, a touchback happens when the ball lands in the end zone without being touched or downed by the kicking team. If the receiving team catches the ball in the end zone and takes a knee, a touchback is also called. After a touchback on a punt, the receiving team begins their possession on their own 20-yard line.

Fumble Rules

A fumble by the offense that ends up in the opponent’s end zone can result in a touchback if the defensive team:

  • Recovers the ball in their own end zone and does not attempt to return it
  • Forces the ball out of bounds in their own end zone

In these scenarios, the defensive team is awarded a touchback, and they gain possession of the ball at their own 20-yard line. Additionally, a touchback can be awarded when the offensive team fumbles the ball into their own end zone, and the defense recovers the ball. This results in a safety and 2 points for the defensive team, followed by a free kick from the offensive team’s 20-yard line.

Implications of a Touchback

Strategical Implications

A touchback occurs in American football when the ball is caught or deemed dead within the end zone, usually during kickoffs. The receiving team then starts their possession with the ball on their 25-yard line. This provides a strategic advantage for the receiving team as they gain some yardage without having to risk injury or turnovers during a kickoff return.

On the other hand, the kicking team also aims to achieve a touchback by kicking the ball deep into the end zone. This tactic ensures that the opposing team starts their offensive drive from the 25-yard line rather than potentially gaining more yardage for their return. In essence, touchbacks contribute to minimizing risks and promoting safer gameplay.

Score Implications

The scoring implications of a touchback are neutral, as neither team is awarded points for a touchback. The main objective of the kicking team is to prevent the opposing team from scoring a touchdown or gaining a significant field advantage. The touchback achieves this by setting the opposing team’s starting position at a predetermined yard line, either the 20 or 25-yard line, depending on the situation.

The receiving team has some control over the touchback scenario as well. During a kickoff, if the returner chooses not to advance the ball from the end zone, he can signal for a fair catch or kneel, resulting in a touchback and ensuring the team starts at the 25-yard line, avoiding the possibility of losing yardage or fumbling the ball. Similarly, during a punt, the receiving team can signal for a fair catch, and if the ball crosses into the end zone, the ball is placed on the 20-yard line as a touchback.

In conclusion, a touchback has both strategic and scoring implications in American football, affecting the decisions made by both teams. Essentially, the touchback is a strategic tool used by both kicking and receiving teams to minimize risks and manage field positions.

Touchback Variations

College Football Rules

In college football, a touchback can occur in various situations. The most common situation is when the ball is caught or recovered within the receiving team’s own end zone during kickoffs. In this case, the receiving team starts their offensive drive from their 25-yard line.

Another situation is when a punt or a missed field goal crosses the end zone. In these cases, the touchback takes place and the ball is placed at the offensive team’s 20-yard line.

Lastly, when there’s a fumble that goes out of the end zone or a player with possession of the ball is downed inside the end zone without scoring a touchdown, a touchback happens, placing the ball at the 20-yard line.

National Football League Rules

In the NFL, touchbacks are similar to college football but with a few differences. Just like in college football, touchbacks occur during kickoffs, punts, fumbles, and other dead-ball situations. However, in the NFL, when a touchback occurs on a kickoff, the receiving team starts their offensive drive from their 25-yard line.

For punts, missed field goals, and fumbles going out of end zone, the touchback results in the offense starting from their 20-yard line. The NFL follows the same rules regarding touchbacks in instances where a player with the ball goes down inside the end zone without scoring a touchdown.