In American football, a touchback is a ruling which is made and signaled by an official when the ball becomes dead on or behind a team's own goal line (i.e., in an end zone) and the opposing team gave the ball the momentum, or impetus, to travel over or across the goal line. Such impetus may be imparted by a kick, pass, fumble, or in certain instances by batting the ball. A touchback is not a play, but a result of events that may occur during a play. A touchback is the opposite of a safety with regard to impetus since a safety is scored when the defending team is responsible for the ball becoming dead on or behind its own goal line.
Examples of instances where a touchback would be awarded include when:
In standard outdoor American football, the team awarded the touchback receives possession of the ball at its own 25-yard line in college football, and the 25 yard-line for professional football, on kickoffs and free kicks after a safety as of the 2012 season. In arena football, and other indoor football games, a touchback results in the team awarded the touchback receiving the football at its own 3-yard line. This can result from any of the above events except for punting, which is not a part of arena football. (In arena football, a kicked ball usually bounces back into play off of the rebound nets, but the above can still occur when the ball lands in the slack nets behind the goalposts after a kickoff, passes under the rebound nets and out of play, or in the event of fumbles and interceptions.)
On March 23, 2016, the NFL announced that it would award a touchback line at the 25-yard line instead of the previous 20-yard line and much discussion and analysis on the impact of this change has emerged. This new rule will be re-evaluated after the 2016 NFL season.
In college football, if a defensive player gains possession of the ball during a play between his own five-yard line and goal line and the player's original momentum carries him into the end zone, there is no touchback. Instead, the ball is dead at the point where possession changed. In the National Football League, this rule applies regardless of whether possession is gained inside the five-yard line.
In July 2016, the NCAA announced that it had approved the Ivy League to test an experimental kickoff rule in conference play in the 2016 season. Under this rule, kickoffs will be taken from the 40-yard line instead of the 35, and touchbacks will be marked at the 20-yard line instead of the 25. The rule will be re-evaluated in February 2017.
In Canadian football the term touchback is not used. The failure to advance a kicked ball out of the goal area results in a single point being scored by the kickers, as well as possession by the receivers at their 35-yard line or at the point the ball was kicked from. A turn-over by fumble or interception in the defense's goal area results in a scrimmage on the 25-yard line with no points awarded.
Six- and eight-man football
For high schools which play six-man football and eight-man football on an 30-yard long field, a touchback is brought out to the 15-yard line.
A special rule applies in college football and the NFL with regard to field goal attempts. If a missed field goal occurs in these leagues, where the other team receives possession of the ball depends on the spot from which the ball has been kicked. In NCAA football, the ball will be placed either on the twenty or the line of scrimmage of the play in which the attempt was made; in the NFL, either the twenty or the place from which the ball was kicked. (In either case, the ball goes to the spot which is further from the goal line.) The purpose of this rule is to discourage low-percentage, long-range field goal attempts and to deemphasize the advantage which can accrue when only one team has a kicker who has a reasonable possibility of success from a great distance. In American high school football (except in Massachusetts and Texas, which use college football rules), the missed field goal, regardless of where attempted on the field, results in a touchback as long as the attempt breaks the plane of the goal line, and in arena football, the field goal is treated as if it were a punt.