Game Play Thursday : Onside Kick

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Something you are likely to see over the course of the next few weeks is an onside kick or two. These usually occur near the end of the game or any time a team is desperate for a touchdown. Here’s what to know:

We know that normal kickoffs look like this:

photo credit

The receiving team’s special teams unit  is near their own endzone, but spread throughout their own territory, waiting to receive the kickoff. The kicking team’s special teams unit is lined up in a single line, evenly spaced, and will block and tackle the kickoff return.

An onside kick attempt looks a little different. You’ll know it as soon as you see it:

photo credit

See how much closer the two units are to each other? And how nearly everyone on the receiving team is up front waiting to receive the kick? That’s an onside kick formation.

When you see a team lined up for an onside kick (and don’t worry – the commentators will alert you that the kicking team is attempting an onside kick if you’re unsure), here’s what they’re trying to achieve:

  • In a normal kickoff situation, the kicking team kicks to the receiving team. Wherever the receiving team fields the ball is where the offense starts their drive. So, hypothetically, if the returner caught the kick and was tackled at the 10 yard line, the offense would start at their own 10 yard line. (If a kickoff is caught in the end zone and the returner kneels down, that’s called a touchback. The ball is automatically brought out to the 20 yard line in a touchback.)
  • If a team is behind by several scores, they don’t want to kick the ball off to the other team and give them a chance to score AGAIN. So what they might do instead is an onside kick.
  • If the kicking team recovers the onside kick (we’ll talk about the logistics of the kick in just a second), they get possession of the football and start their drive wherever the ball was recovered.
  • If the kicking team does not recover the ball and the receiving team recovers it instead, they get the ball where they recovered it, and that’s usually a heck of a lot closer to the end zone than they would have been on a normal kickoff. But, it’s a risk that is sometimes necessary to take.

Ok, so, what makes an onside kick different than a normal kick?

Remember how in the photo of the normal kick above the two units were pretty far away from each other? And in the photo of the onside kick they are much closer together? That’s because in an onside kick, the kicking team wants to give their own unit the best chance to recover the football. In order for that to happen, they try to kick it the shortest distance allowable (the ball has to travel at least 10 yards) and beat the receiving team players to the ball. That’s why the receiving team has moved from the endzone to just 10 yards away from the kicking team: they want to be as close as possible to try and get to the ball first.

So, regular kicks are as long as possible; onside kicks are as short as possible.

There are a few rules that govern an onside kick attempt:

  1. The kick has to travel at least 10 yards. If it doesn’t, the receiving team automatically gets the ball wherever it’s downed (where the ball was when the whistle blew the play dead).
  2. A member of the kicking team is not allowed to catch the ball before it hits the ground; once it hits the ground it’s fair game. (Kickers usually kick it so that it’s low and uncatchable – kind of like a skipping rock – so that’s usually not an issue.)
  3. If the kicking team does recover the ball, they can’t advance it (try to pick it up and run with it to gain more yards).

It sounds like a good deal. Make a short kick, recover the ball, get great field position (usually around the 50 yard line) and then try to score. But are onside kicks successful?

For the most part: no. Not by a long shot (or, in this case, a short shot).

According to Pro Football Reference, there have been 59 onside kick attempts so far in the 2012 season. Out of those 59? Only 6 were recovered by the kicking team. And of those 6 recoveries, only 2 went on to win the game! So according to this year’s statistics, there’s a little over a 10% chance that the kicking team will recover, and even if they do, there’s only a 33% chance that they’ll win. That’s only a 3% chance that the kicking team will recover AND win.

Let’s remember that the onside kick isn’t a magical play that automatically evens the score; most teams only try it when they’re desperate. So the fact that 97% of onside kicking teams go on to lose the game isn’t the necessarily the fault of a blown onside kick, it’s that the team was already substantially behind. More often than not, it’s a last ditch effort. But the stats and the risk aren’t nearly enough to make trying an onside kick a foolish move that should never be attempted. Sure, it’s a last ditch effort, but it’s an effort, and it’s going to team a lot farther than watching the other team run out the clock to a victory.

The Saints notoriously used a surprise onside kick to their advantage in Super Bowl XLVI. They were down 10-6 to the Colts at halftime and were slated to kick the ball off to the Colts to begin the second half. But they successfully staged a surprise onside kick instead, followed that with a touchdown, and went on to win the Super Bowl.

Is an onside kick worth the risk? It depends on who you ask. In my own opinion, I think if you have about a 3% chance to win the game with an onside kick and about a 0% chance to win the game without one?

You try the onside kick. Never stop fighting.

What do you guys think?

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Surviving the Super Bowl : Special Teams - Football for Normal GirlsFootball for Normal Girls - January 24, 2013

    […] 5. Onside Kicks: If a team is down by a lot of points late in the game and is slated to kick the ball off to the other team, they might attempt an onside kick to regain possession of the ball and try to score more points on offense. You’ll notice an onside kick attempt quickly and easily because the teams stand much closer to each other than they do for normal kickoffs. In an onside kick, the ball is kicked low to the ground and travels like a skipping rock. It must travel at least 10 yards, but the kicker will try to keep it as close to 10 yards as possible to give his team a greater chance of recovering the ball, since the other team is lined up closer than usual and has a greater likelihood of reaching the ball first. (For much more on onside kicks, see this post.) […]

  2. Surviving the Super Bowl: Test Answers - Football for Normal GirlsFootball for Normal Girls - January 31, 2013

    […] If you need more information about the thought process and execution behind onside kicks, check out this post. […]

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