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In American football, a touchback is a ruling which is made and signaled by the referee when the ball crosses into or through the end zone not in control of the team which put it into play. A touchback is not a play, but a result of events that may occur during a play. The team awarded the touchback receives possession of the ball at its own 20-yard line.

Touchbacks occur when:

  • A kickoff enters the end zone and is fielded, but not returned, in which event the team to whom the ball was kicked retains possession.
  • A kickoff enters the end zone and is not fielded before the ball goes through and out of the end zone, out of bounds and off the field of play, in which event the receiving team is awarded possession.
  • A punt enters the end zone, or a defensive player enters the end zone while attempting to field a punt.
  • A ball carrier fumbles the ball within the field of play, and the ball either goes through the end zone without being recovered, in which event the fumbling team does not retain possession of the ball, or is recovered by the team that fumbled in their own end zone. (If the fumble occurs in the end zone, however, the result is a safety if the team that fumbled recovers, or a touchdown if the team on defense recovers.)
  • A defensive player intercepts a forward pass in the defender's end zone, and then makes an effort or no effort to return the pass. (A forward pass thrown through and out of the end zone, however, is an incomplete pass, and does not result in a touchback.)
  • If the kicking team kicks the football into the receiving team's end zone on a kickoff and the receiving team recovers in their end zone and makes an attempt to return the ball but the receiving team is tackled before crossing the goal line it is ruled a touchback.

If the ball is fumbled on a kickoff in the endzone then downs the ball it is a safety.


American football

In standard outdoor American football, the team awarded the touchback receives possession of the ball at its own 20-yard line. In arena football, and other indoor football games, a touchback results in the team awarded the touchback receiving the football at its own five-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.)

College football

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 only to pass interceptions (regardless of whether they occur inside the five-yard line).

Canadian football

In Canadian football, 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. 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. In the Canadian game the term touchback is not used.


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. The ball will be placed either on the twenty or the line of scrimmage of the play in which the attempt was made in college football; either the twenty or the place from which the ball was kicked in the NFL. (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.



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