The kickoff seems like a pointless term to define, but quelle surprise, there are a ton of rules involved. In its simplest form, a kickoff is when you kick the ball from the 35 yard line (NFL level). The kickoff is a “free” kick. This occurs at the start of each half, before each overtime, and after a touchdown or field goal.
The team that kicks to start the game is decided by the coin flip. The winner of the coin flip chooses whether they would like to kickoff to start the game or to start the second half. If a scoring play has resulted, the scoring team will kick-off to give their opponents a chance to score. There is also an exclusive NFL rule that states if a team scores a safety, the team that gave up the safety must give possession of the ball to the scoring team via kick off from their 20 yard line. However, this free kick must be completed with no tee. Why? Who friggin knows?
Now to the actual rules of a kickoff. A kickoff must travel at least 10 yards or be touched by the receiving team in some fashion. Once this has occurred, the ball is up for grabs. The kicking team can recover the ball if it has met one of the two requirements, however, the play is dead as soon as the kicking team has recovered it. No advancement allowed.
If a kickoff goes out of bounds in the endzone, tadaaaaa, a touchback. Forgot what that means already? Get reacquainted here.
If the ball goes out of bounds anywhere else on the field, without being touched by a player, the receiving team gains possession of the ball along the same yard line the ball went out of bounds on. Guess what? There’s an exception. If the kicking team is attempting an onside kick for the first time and the ball goes out of bounds without being touched, the kicking team is penalized 5 yards and has to kick again.
If the kicking team screws up any of these rules, the receiving team gets the ball wherever play went dead. I will delve into more detail on specific kickoff instances that have become their own rules like fair catches and onside kicks in future posts.
No matter how great your kicker is, you cannot score a field goal on a kickoff. It simply results in a touchback.