Once a kickoff goes 10 yards, it is anyone’s ball. That is well known, but on a few occasions, the receiver either muffs the catch or forgets that it is a free ball, which leads to a touchdown. Most recently it occurred in the final game of the 2016 season when Bills receiver Mike Gillislee allowed a kickoff to roll into his end zone where the Jets recovered.
It is extraordinarily rare for the kicking team to get a touchdown directly from the kickoff, due to a couple of restrictive rules. First, when the kicking team recovers the kickoff, most often by an onside kick, the ball is dead as soon as they gain possession. When the catch is muffed — defined in the rules as a failed attempt to secure possession — the ball legally remains a “kick” until a player on either team possesses the ball; the kicking team is still not able to advance a recovered ball if it is still a kick under the rules. However, if a returner has established possession and then loses it, it is a fumble and the kicking team can advance.
Second, a major rewrite to the kickoff rules in 2018 added another restriction to a kicking team touchdown recovery. If the ball touches the ground in the end zone and has not touched a receiving team player, this is a touchback. In the example above, Gillislee would be bailed out under today’s rules, and instead of a Jets touchdown, it would be Bills ball on a touchback. (The new kickoff rule was passed for one year only and requires a ¾-vote of owners at the 2019 meetings to extend it.)
For the list of kicking team recoveries, we aren’t including any touchdowns off fumble recoveries. The kicking team is the first to possess the ball in all cases, and they have done so in the end zone for a touchdown. Oddly, the Giants have scored 3 touchdowns in their history this way; the Eagles have surrendered 3 kickoff-TDs to the kickers, in addition to have recovered one as well during the season they merged with the Steelers.
In some cases with the plays below, the official scorer recorded these plays as fumbles, but we have verified through video or newspaper evidence that those were, in fact, kickoff recoveries.
Kickoff recovery touchdowns, 1940-2018
Boxscore link to Pro Football Reference. Video. *Opening kickoff. Home team in italics.
|1/1/2017||New York Jets||Buffalo Bills||not fielded||Doug Middleton||Mike Gillislee|
|9/30/1984||New York Giants||Los Angeles Rams||not fielded*||Phil McConkey||A.J. Jones|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||San Diego Chargers||muffed*||Guy Ruff||James Brooks|
|New York Giants||Philadelphia Eagles||muffed||Mark Haynes||Wally Henry|
|10/12/1980||Oakland Raiders||San Diego Chargers||muffed||Todd Christensen||Chuck Muncie|
|9/19/1971||New York Giants||Green Bay Packers||not fielded, then muffed||Joe Green||Dave Hampton|
|11/29/1964||Cleveland Browns||Philadelphia Eagles||misplayed bounce*||Roger Shoals||Timmy Brown|
|10/1/1955||Washington Redskins||Philadelphia Eagles||misplayed bounce||Ralph Thomas||Jerry Norton|
|San Francisco 49ers||New York Yankees||muffed*||Len Eshmont||Bob Kennedy|
|10/31/1943||Phil-Pitt Steagles||Chicago Cardinals||muffed||Ronnie Cahill||Jack Hinkle|
In addition, one kickoff was later determined to erroneously be ruled a touchback, when it should have been a touchdown recovery. On Oct. 30, 1977, the Houston Oilers kicked off to the Cincinnati Bengals with 27 seconds remaining in a tie game. Bengals kick returner Willie Shelby failed to field the kick, then was ruled to have touched the ball in the end zone while out of bounds. Steve Baumgartner recovered the ball for the Oilers, but it was ruled a touchback on the apparent touch by Shelby. The Oilers lost the game in overtime. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle admitted the officiating error to Oilers coach Bum Phillips in the week after the game, noting that Shelby was in bounds when the ball bounced away from him, regardless of whether he touched the ball.
Jeremy Snyder contributed to this report.