The Onside Kick: You’re Doing It Wrong

There’s an idea that’s been nagging at me for a while now, about football and the onside kick. It’s something pretty obvious, and I heard it touched upon by CBS’s Greg Gumbel, of all people, at the end of yesterday’s Raiders-Jaguars game, so I should probably stop procrastinating and spell this thing out here and now.

Every time football teams try the onside kick, they’re doing it wrong.

The DFR: FootballWe’re all familiar with the usual form of onside kick: The placekicker stubs the ball into the ground, everyone on the kicking team plunges forward, hoping for a weird, unusual bounce that also happens to take the ball 10 yards down the field, where hopefully one of the receiving team’s players will not catch the ball, thus allowing one of the kicking team to grab the loose ball and maybe, just maybe, give his team a chance to make that desperate play which will tie or win the game.

The problem with all that is…well, there’s a lot wrong with it. We know that the success rate for onside kicks is quite low, and is lower still when the other team is expecting it. In the standard iteration of the onside kick, there’s not much control and a lot of randomness involved; it’s less a tactical play and more a crap shoot effort to get the ball back. And, due to recent rules changes, it’s become even harder to pull off.

“The ball’s in your court–or on your tee–special teams coaches: now you just have to draw up the play.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a better way to attempt the onside kick that’s legal, more tactical, and has a better chance of success.

Let’s go over the components of the better way to onside kick. (I like to call it “the Taylor onside”–named after myself, naturally.)

Formation: The kicking team lines up in a tight formation, with all of its players lined up evenly on either side of the kicker. Back in the day, teams used to overload all their players on one side of the field for the onside kick, but the rules were changed a few years ago prohibiting that (because the NFL is determined to outlaw every aspect of football except perhaps the snap–and that may be endangered, too).

The idea is to both get your own guys together in the middle of the field, and to encourage the other team to clump their own players together in a tight formation near the center of the gridiron. Why? Because having the opposing players tight to the center of the field will give your kicker an easier target.

The Kick: Gumbel was very close to the right idea. He said, “Kick it really hard at a big guy.” The receiving team is unlikely to put one of its offensive lineman on the “hands” team, so the big guy part is probably out–but the hard kick is definitely the idea.

What you want is for your kicker to run up and drive the ball as hard as he can–with control–at the nearest receiving team player. Ideally, this will be a player standing in a direct line straight down the field from the ball, with as little angle as possible.

The idea here is, you want a screaming line drive kick to smack directly into the nearest receiving player, preferably one who is only ten yards away. Remember, on an onside kick the ball has to travel 10 yards for it to be eligible for recovery by the kicking team–unless a member of the receiving team touches it. Once one of the receivers touches the ball, it becomes live for anyone to recover.

And if the kick is a screaming line drive directly at one of their players, is he likely to catch the ball? No. At ten yards away, the ball’s going to come at him too fast for him to reliably catch it. It’s most likely going to hit his hands and/or body and bounce off him. And where will the bounce go? Most likely, straight back where it came from–back towards the kicking team’s players–allowing for an easy recovery by the kicking team.

That’s why you want their guys in the middle of the field. If you try this sort of thing on the sharp angle towards the sideline–the way most onside kicks are done now, it’s unlikely to succeed. The ball will travel too far to hit a receiving player, long enough to give him a better chance of catching the ball. And even if you get the bounce off the other team’s player, it will, as likely as not, just bounce off to the side and out of bounds. Make it as short a kick as possible, with as little reaction time as possible, and you’ll get better results.

This strategy–and it is much more strategic a play than the “hope for a bouncy ball” kick–relies on a few things: First, as noted, it relies on the receiving team player not catching the ball. If the kick is hard enough, that’s a pretty safe bet. Second, it relies on your kicker being able to hit a man-sized target at ten yards away with a hard, line drive kick. That’s within reasonable expectations for a professional kicker; college and high school kickers may be another matter. Finally, it also relies upon the other team giving your kicker that close target, by matching your formation with a tight, center-of-the-field formation their own.

What do you do if the other team refuses to go along with your wishes, and instead spreads their guys out and leaves the middle of the field open. Obviously, you line up in the same way, but instead of a line drive, your kicker hits the slow rolling dribbler straight up the middle of the field. Then your bunched players will allow you to outman their spread out players at the point of attack. In that case, the kicking team players run out in front of the rolling ball, block off the receiving team players, and the kicker himself can just fall on the ball once it crosses 10 yards down the field. Again, easy recovery.

The only way the receiving team can counteract this variety of onside kick is by dodging the line-drive kick and not giving the kicking team the bounce back carom that they’re looking for. But even in that instance, the kicking team will still have a live ball bouncing down the center of the field, most likely with one or no players back to recover it. The most likely outcome, at worst, is that the receiving team will recover the ball down the field, or it will bounce out of the end zone for a touchback–which is still an better outcome than the receivers getting the ball around midfield.

I’ve never seen a team try this sort of onside kick. I’m certain it would work, or would work  more often than the current style of onside kick. I don’t see how the NFL can legislate it away, unless they simply eliminate the onside kick (or the kickoff in general). Just changing things up a bit would make the onside kick a more interesting and exciting play, and thus make the game itself more interesting and exciting. The ball’s in your court–or on your tee–special teams coaches: now you just have to draw up the play.


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