what is a touchback in football

What Is a Touchback in Football? A Guide to How It Works

You’ve probably seen a player during an NFL game kick the ball towards the end zone. Fans can easily see the play during kicking plays. It usually happens to get the ball as deep as possible towards an opponent’s end.

The play usually pins the opponent and makes it steeper for them to climb, often resulting in a touchback.

So, what is a touchback in football? The NFL rulebook defines a touchback as when the ball comes dead or goes behind the defending team’s goal line as a result of a kick from the opposing team. A result of such a kickoff from a team to the territory of a defending team leads to a touchback as long the ball is neither a touchdown nor an incomplete pass.

Play is ruled as a touchback when this happens, and the ball is returned to the 25-yard mark. In some instances, the ball goes back to the 20-yard line.

The rule looks simple on paper, but we’re just getting started. Join me as I discuss the football touchback rules and how it varies in college and NFL football.

Touchback on Kicks

A touchback on a kickoff is the most common type of touchback in football and one you’ve probably seen.

The touchback occurs when a player on the receiving end catches the ball from a kickoff and takes a knee. It can also occur when the player runs out of the end zone.

The referee will signal a touchback if the receiving player takes a knee or runs out of the end zone. Play will stop automatically, and the ball returns to the 25-yard line.

Both the kicking team’s defence and receiving team’s offence will come out to the field.

In college and NFL football, players are strong enough to reach the end zone. Teams need to take a touchback or return a kick when they get a kick.

Most teams are willing to take a touchback since doing so puts them in a superior field position to attack. You’ll not find a player taking the ball from their end zone, which will put them under poor field position. 

You want to be closer to your opponent’s territory as much as possible.

A kickoff touchback can also happen when players decide not to catch the ball and instead let it roll out.

Touchback On a Punt

We also have the touchback on a punt when the punting team decides to put the ball outside the end zone. The moment the ball passes the opponent’s goal line, the referee rules it as a touchback.

It is an thrilling play and one that excites a lot. You’ll see players trying to prevent the ball from entering the end zone.

The ball can also result in a touchback when the punting squad makes contact with the ball last, and it ends in the end zone. The ball must remain in the playing field or out of bounds to prevent a punt touchback.

Touchback On Offense

Lastly, we have the offence touchback, which occurs mainly when a player fumbles out in the opponent’s end zone. It’s a very rare touchback but one you can expect to see in touchback football.

It has happened before where players catch the ball and celebrate too early. If a receiver punches the ball out of hand, it results in a touchback.

When a player fumbles and the ball rolls out in the opponent’s end zone. The opposing squad will take possession and start play from the 25-yard mark.

The touchback on offense seems pretty weird and can hurt a team’s drive. It is usually the wing + offense that leads to an offense touchback. They can also happen when players try to dive and end up losing control of the ball. A touchback is given if the ball rolls out of the end zone.

How Many Yards is a Touchback?

A touchback in football is placed at the 25 yards line. When a touchback is ruled, the ball is placed on the 25-yard line and play starts.

However, this was not the case some years ago. Historically, touchbacks were played at the 20-yard line. A rule change in 2012 by the National College Athletic Association (NCCA) moved the touchback 5 yards further, placing it at the 25-yard line.

The NFL later adopted the rule in 2018, placing touchbacks at 25 yards out.

What Leads to a Football Touchback?

A touchback occurs because the ball has left the field of play, and there is no clear way to spot if the ball is left through the end zone.

In most cases, special team units are responsible for touchbacks. Special teams comprise all players that play during kickoffs. These are players tasked with kicking field goals, returning kickoffs, and blocking punts. 

They are usually overlooked but play a crucial part in who wins and loses the game. This is why you’ll find most touchbacks occurring during kicks.

College Football Touchback Rules

The rules in college football and NFL are almost the same with a simple exception. A touchback is played when a kick from an offensive team sends the ball dead or behind the goal line of a defending team, and it’s not a touchdown or an incomplete pass.

The only exception is the fair-catching rule that came into place in the 2018-2019 season.

It states that any fair catch on a free kick or kickoff between the 25-yard line and the receiving team’s goal line has ruled a touchback. Take for example, a team catching a fair on the 2–yard line. Play will be ruled as a touchback, and the ball returned to the 25-yard line.

This is a balance of touchback vs safety. It’s a rule that was designed specifically for player safety. Remember, kickoff is the most dangerous play in football.

More kickoffs result in touchbacks because of this rule. The more touchbacks and few returns mean there are minimal injuries.

NFL Touchback Rules

The NFL is the biggest and richest football league in the world, you can be sure they are pretty organized when it comes to rules. They feature a set of rules that have made the game standard.

Before we get started on the NFL touchback rules, let’s see how they define a touchback. According to the NFL, a touchback is given when the ball is behind a defending team or dead, as long as the impetus is from an opposing team and it’s not a touchdown or an incomplete pass.

NFL game

They have a 2021 rulebook where they have given a breakdown of the touchdown rules. If the ball is sent over the goal line from an offensive team, then a touchback is given.

Here are some scenarios where a touchback can occur in NFL:

  • The ball is out of bounds and behind the goal line
  • The ball ends dead on the opponent’s end zone
  • When a kick has not been touched by a receiving team, and the ball goes behind the goal line or touches the ground
  • If the kick has not been touched by the receiving team but touches a player of the kicking team who is behind the receiver’s goal line or one who is touching the ball
  • When the receiving team has not touched a kick but the ball touches a player of the kicking team who is behind the receiver’s goal line or one who has touched the ground
  • When you have a legal or an illegal kick apart from one that scores a field goal touching the receiver’s post
  • When the kicking team interferes with the receiver and affects their ability to catch the ball. This is also called a call fair play when the ball is in the end zone
  • If a player of the receiving team catches the ball illegally and carries it across the goal line or touches the goal line
  • The same can happen when a player of the receiving team recovers a scrimmage kick in the field of play and touches the goal line with any part of his body or crosses the ball over the goal line.

In the NFL, a touchback can be called when any of the scenarios above occur. The rules might seem a little complicated but players and fans understand them.

If a team gets a touchback, they return the ball to the 25-yard line. However, there are a few instances when the call returns to the 20-yard line. This is when a touchback occurs but not on a kickoff.

NFL Plays that Set Off the Touchback Rule

Wondering what play could trigger a touchback rule! You’ll likely see the touchback rule in place during punts and kickoffs. This is because most special teams try to put the ball as far down as possible.

This reduces the chance of their opponents scoring while extending their next scoring drive.

So basically a play during kickoff that leads to the ball touching the ground in the opponent’s end zone can result in a touchback. The same can happen when the football touches the field goal post or rolls out in the end zone.

Several plays can trigger a touchback rule. I’ve already shared with you some scenarios when teams play a touchback.

Teams can trigger the touchback rule when the receiving team returner waves a fair catch and downs the ball in the end zone.

A touchback rule trigger can also occur during punting when the ball lands on the ground in the end zone. If the offensive team mishandles the ball in their end zone and the ball goes out of play, a touchback rule is also triggered.

If the offense fumbles and the ball rolls outbound and forward, then a touchback trigger can happen. In cases where the defensive player fumbles, a defense touchback is given.

Football Touchback Questions That Every Fan Wants to Know

How Many Points Is a Touchback in Football?

Zero points! To simply put it, no points are awarded for a touchback in football.

How many points is a touchback is a pretty common question among new fans in football. However, a touchback is not a score and no points are awarded.

The ball is usually put back in play at the 25-yard mark.


Is a Touchback in Football Good?

A touchback is good in football, especially for the return team. It simply means the offense will start an attack at the 25-yard mark. This gives you space and time to prepare your defense.

However, a touchback can also be beneficial to the kicking team. With a touchback, the kicking team doesn’t have to worry about covering the kick. This also prevents the return team from gaining more yards than a touchback can offer.

In general, a touchback can be either good or bad for the punt team. If the punt team is punting from the opponent’s side, then it’s not good. However, if they punt the ball for a long punt, then it’s a good thing.

Is a Touchback 2 Points?

No, a touchback is not two points.

This is because no points are scored when you have a touchback. Instead, the play returns to the 25-yard mark.

A touchback happens when the referee rules the ball dead on a kick after it leaves the field. Play resumes from the 25-yard mark and no points are awarded.

How Is a Touchback Scored?

A touchback is scored during kickoffs and punts when the ball goes behind the goal line of a defending team or becomes dead. It can also be scored when the ball touches the goal post or rolls to the end zone.

The receiver team can also score a touchback by waving a fair catch and downing the ball in the end zone.

Apart from kickoffs, a touchback score can occur during punting when the ball touches the ground in the end zone. If the offensive team fumbles and the ball goes out of bounds or rolls out in the end zone, a touchback is scored.


Touchbacks in football are common and can be seen in every college and NFL game. A touchback in football occurs when the ball ends in the end zone after kicking. 

It can also happen when a defensive team fumbles and the ball rolls out in the end zone. When a touchback is ruled, play starts from the 25-yard mark.

The purpose of a touchback is to make a safe space for the receiver and start a new scoring drive. You’ll see coaches playing safe and having their returner take a knee to bring the offense to the field. 

The rules for a touchback in football are the same in college and NFL with a small exception of fair play in college.

In high school games, touchbacks are very rare. This is because kickers in high school don’t have the strength to reach the end zone.

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