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Weighing risk and reward - the surprise onside kick

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How effective is it and why don’t more coaches use it?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

So you are the head coach and your team just scored to cut the deficit or tie the game. You now have to kick off and give the ball back to the other team.

Or do you?

In the NFL, about 10 times per year, a head coach pulls a “surprise” onside kick - which I define as one that occurs in the first, second, or third quarter of the game.

This century there have been 192 surprise onside kicks. Those have been successful 87 times (45.3 percent). So from an odds perspective, there is a 45 percent chance that your team gets the ball back at somewhere around your own 45 yard line. Conversely there is a 55 percent chance that you give the other team great field position at your 45.

Prior to the 2018 season, players on the kickoff team (on an onside attempt or on a regular kickoff) could get a running start. That running start would be made illegal in the name of player safety, and one result was the success rate for onside kicks has gone down over the last two seasons.

From 2000-2017, the average success rate on all onside kicks was 18.2 percent. Over the last two seasons that has dropped to 10.3 percent and only 8.8 percent on normal onside kicks. Currently there is a proposal that would allow teams to try something else to get the ball back after a score instead of attempting an onside kick.

The most famous surprise onside kick came in the 2006 Super Bowl where Sean Payton used it to start the 3rd quarter and swing the momentum of the game toward the Saints. The Colts were up 10-6, but the Saints would end up winning 31-17 partly due to the momentum swing from this surprise onside kick. On drive after the successful onside kick, the Saints would take a 13-10 lead on a 16-yard TD pass from Drew Brees to Pierre Thomas.

Compare the success rate on surprise onside kicks with the success rate on “regular” onside kicks. There have been 946 regular onside kicks this century, and only 110 have been successful (11.6 percent).

Year Onside Kicks Successes Non-Surprise Successes Normal Success Rate (NSR) Surprise Kicks Surprise Successes Surprise Success Rate (SSR)
2019 62 8 6 12.9% 6 2 33.3%
2018 52 4 4 7.7% 4 0 0.0%
2017 56 12 9 21.4% 8 3 37.5%
2016 63 7 5 11.1% 7 2 28.6%
2015 67 10 7 14.9% 8 3 37.5%
2014 58 6 2 10.3% 10 4 40.0%
2013 61 11 7 18.0% 6 4 66.7%
2012 61 6 2 9.8% 12 4 33.3%
2011 57 9 4 15.8% 11 5 45.5%
2010 55 8 6 14.5% 11 2 18.2%
2009 46 8 6 17.4% 8 2 25.0%
2008 53 11 5 20.8% 13 6 46.2%
2007 74 17 6 23.0% 23 11 47.8%
2006 47 11 5 23.4% 11 6 54.5%
2005 54 7 4 13.0% 7 3 42.9%
2004 48 12 6 25.0% 9 6 66.7%
2003 49 10 8 20.4% 5 2 40.0%
2002 53 13 7 24.5% 8 6 75.0%
2001 59 13 4 22.0% 12 9 75.0%
2000 63 14 7 22.2% 13 7 53.8%

If your opponent recovers an onside kick, they are in FG range without even gaining a first down. Most placekickers in the NFL have the ability to hit from 62 yards, even if it’s a relatively low success rate. Take a look at the FG success rate by distance in this article.

So why don’t more coaches use the “surprise” onside kick? The biggest reason is that if it becomes more common, the surprise element will disappear and then it will be a much worse move (the success rate will go down and potentially equate with the normal onside success rate). Since there were so few surprise onside kicks, let’s look at all six of them from last season.

Before we get into that, I should note that there has been only one onside kick in overtime in NFL history and it happened after the rule change that allowed both teams to possess the ball if a TD (or safety) is not scored on the opening possession.

In 2015 at the start of overtime in a game against the Rams, Pete Carroll decided to attempt an onside kick. The Rams recovered the kick at the Seahawks’ 49, and Nick Foles, who was starting for the Rams at that time, led the Rams down to the Seattle 19 where they kicked what would eventually be the game-winning FG. The Seahawks were unable to score on their possession, turning the ball over on downs on a 4th and 1 play from the Rams 42.

Oddly enough, Pete Carroll, who had just gambled on the onside kick, did not gamble with Steven Hauschka attempting a 59 yard FG to tie (in a dome, since the Rams were still playing in the Edward Jones dome in St. Louis). He instead opted to let Marshawn Lynch run the ball on 4th-and-1 resulting in a loss of two yards and a loss of the game. If we assume that Marshawn Lynch had a 50% chance of gaining the needed yard, then this was the right call since that is higher success rate than the success rate on 59-yard FG attempts in recent NFL history (see the linked article for the data on that). I don’t know how much Marshawn Lynch had left in the 2015 season.

Lynch was hurt for most of that season, so he only carried the ball in short yardage situations 11 times, but he was still good converting on seven of eleven carries on third or fourth and one or two (or goal from the 1 or 2). So it would seem that Pete Carroll made the right decision to hand the ball to Lynch, Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers just blew up the play with the game on the line. Aaron Donald has that ability.

Six “surprise” onside attempts from 2019

Three of the surprise kicks happened with little or no time left in the second quarter (so they were less surprising than the other three). The first one occurred in the game between the Lions and the Cowboys in Dallas. The Cowboys scored at TD to go up 24-14 with 33 seconds left in the first half. There were two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the Lions’ (one of the TD and one on the XP) so the Cowboys were kicking off from the DET 35. So this one really wasn’t a surprise since the Lions were fully expecting an onside given that the Cowboys would have been in easy FG range had they recovered the onside. The Lions recovered the onside at their own 15 (it was a poor kick by Brett Maher). I put this in with the surprise onsides because it did not happen in the 4th quarter when the vast majority of onside kicks occur in the NFL.

In 2019 there were two others that happened in the second quarter with almost no time left. Hauschka, who played for the Bills in 2019, attempted an onside kick against the Patriots with one second left in the half. The Bills had just scored to tie it up at 10, but this was more of a squib than a true on-side. The Patriots recovered. In watching this one, it does appear that it was a “surprise” attempt, but the intent on the part of the Bills was just to run out the clock without the possibility of kickoff return TD. The Patriots, who are always well coached on special teams, were ready for the onside though.

The other late-in-the-first half attempt was by the Jaguars against the Bengals. The Jags had just kicked a FG to pull within one at 7-6. There were only six seconds left in the half, but the Jags could have tried a Hail Mary pass at the end of the half had they recovered.

The other three surprise onside kicks were, well, much more of a surprise to the other team. The Lions had just scored to go up 14-7 on the Bears with 4:12 left to play in the first quarter of their Week 13 game. The Lions coaching staff must have noticed that one of the Bears front line players on the kickoff return team was turning too quickly so their special teams coach instructed Matt Prater to kick the ball right at that guy as hard as he could (see below). The ball bounced off of the Bear player and we recovered by the Jalen Reeves-Maybin of the Lions. Alternatively, Prater might just have mis-kicked the ball and the Lions got lucky in recovering it.

Onside kicks in the first quarter are rare (only 55 this century), but they do happen, including a handful of times when a team has started a game with an onside kick like the Broncos did in week 17 against the Chargers in 2018 (the Chargers recovered it).

The next surprise onside kick from 2019 happened with Dolphins down 16-7 to the Bills. Miami had just scored with 3:39 left in the first half. The Bills players were caught completely off-guard as Jason Sanders, the kicker for Miami, perfectly kicked a bouncing ball that he recovered once it had traveled the required 10 yards.

Notice that Sanders lines up 10 yards back like he would on a normal kickoff (most kickers not named Brandon McManus get a running start on kickoffs).

The Dolphins were so impressed with Sanders’ ability to do this that they tried it again a few weeks later in their game in Miami against the Eagles. The Dolphins were down 21-14 at home and tried this to start the second half. This one failed, but it was a little different.

Instead of dribbling the ball forward and trying to recover it, Sanders tried to do what Prater had done, which was to hit the ball so hard that bounced off of one the first-line blockers.

The Eagles’ player, T.J. Edwards, was ready for this and almost caught the ball cleanly. You should notice that the Eagles have the front line at the 47-48 yard line while the Bills had almost of their front line guys at the 50, making the surprise kick much easier to pull off.

The Eagles recovered and started their drive at the Miami 47. Their drive would end in a 10-yard touchdown pass from Carson Wentz to Alshon Jeffery to put the Eagles up 28-14.

Poll

If you were a head coach, how often would you use the surprise onside kick?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    never - it’s too risky
    (8 votes)
  • 25%
    maybe once per season
    (35 votes)
  • 11%
    only a couple of times per year
    (16 votes)
  • 42%
    only if I (or my STC) noticed that the front line on the opponent’s KOR team was turning quickly and not paying attention
    (58 votes)
  • 13%
    every time I thought my team needed a momentum boost whether that was at the start of the game, the half or after we scored.
    (19 votes)
136 votes total Vote Now