How the NFL can save the onside kick

The NFL’s onside kick might be responsible for more drama than any other single strategy in football. The mere possibility that a team can steal an extra possession has preserved hope and extended the attention of fans for generations. So it’s no wonder that the competition committee and coaches around the league are scouring for ways to restore the onside kick this offseason after it faded as a viable option in 2018.

Restricted by rule changes designed to make the kickoff safer, teams recovered only four of 52 attempts last season for a 7.7 conversion rate — a sharp drop from 2017 (21.1) and well below the long-term average between 2001 and 2017 (19.7 percent).

Even as some of the game’s most creative coaches work to develop new schemes, at least a handful of teams support a proposal — put forth by the Denver Broncos — that would give each team one opportunity at running a low-percentage offensive play rather than kicking off following a score. A team would have one opportunity per game to remain on offense after a fourth-quarter score, lining up at its 35-yard line for one play. If the team gains the 15 yards, it maintains possession. If not, the defense takes over.

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Owners will gather next week in Phoenix to consider a variety of rule proposals, including the Broncos’ suggestion. The Alliance of American Football (AAF) is utilizing a version of the onside alternative during its inaugural season to moderate success, providing a glimpse of what it might look like in the NFL.

But even though the onside kick is a relatively rare event, the possibilities it engenders make it a significant consideration for league rule-makers. After all, roughly 75 percent of NFL games in the past two decades (2001-18) have been within two scores at the 3-minute mark in regulation, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“It’s definitely different now and the numbers would tell you it’s more difficult,” said Jerry Rosburg, who recently retired as the Baltimore Ravens’ longtime special teams coordinator. “Whether or not there is an evolution of it, and [if] it’ll be approached a little differently, remains to be seen. But with the limitations on alignments, there is only so much they can do. Then it just comes down to the bounce of the ball in many situations, and how well it’s fielded.”

Not everyone is convinced that more change is necessary. The NFL’s football operations department recently publicized an internal study that attributed the 2018 dropoff to fewer surprise onside recoveries, not the type that occur late in games. The recovery rate of those traditional attempts, the league said, was in range of previous years. And some coaches would like at least one more crack at the current structure.

“If you ask me, it’s just a matter of people getting used to it,” said Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub. “Guys are innovative and they have to come up with some new ideas on how to attack it. It’s like anything: You figure it out. Somebody is going to figure out how to do it and, all of a sudden, the numbers will change. … This is what everyone wanted when we changed the kickoff rule. The kickoff is safer, and you still have the onside kick in the game.”

Why converting is so difficult

The 2018 rule changes placed several fundamental limitations on traditional onside kick schemes. Most notably, they prohibited shifting an uneven number of players to one side of the kicker and then prevented running starts toward the line by everyone but the kicker. Each kicking team must have two players outside the hashmark and two more between the hashmark and the numbers.

That arrangement made sense from a safety perspective, but it was clear midway through the season that it had gutted the classic onside kick scheme in which a wall of blockers would try to clear space for one or two designated receivers underneath a high-hopping kick. And without a running start, fewer players were able to get past the 10-yard minimum before the return team had a chance to recover.

“It’s definitely more difficult,” Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker said. “With the new rules, you basically can only put a max of three players out on the [far] wing. You’ll see a lot of teams do a little liner, a high-hopper. They want the ball to go 11 or 12 yards. With the old rules you could put as many guys there as you wanted to. So if you’ve got three guys down there as opposed to, say, six, it’s going to be a lot harder to get into open space to recover. And when you don’t have that running start, you’re definitely at a disadvantage.”

How big of a problem is it?

As the chart below shows, the primary change last season was the plummeting success rate for surprise onside kicks — those that occur outside the normal range of score differential and time remaining. But the recovery rate for expected onside kicks, near the end of games, was within range of combined average for recent years.

The drop in success rate for surprise kicks makes sense when overlaid with the rules regarding alignment for the receiving team. Eight members of the receiving team must line up inside a 15-yard setup zone in the middle of the field — putting them no more than 25 yards from the ball — as opposed to previous years, when they could push more players back toward the returner for blocking purposes. That, by definition makes the return team less vulnerable to surprise onside kicks because they won’t be as outnumbered near the ball.

It’s usually unwise to draw conclusions based on one year of data. But if the true cost here is a drop in surprise onside kicks, is it a problem worth addressing? And even if it is, what could be done?

Possible adjustments

Toub isn’t the only special teams coach who projects an attempt to innovate in 2019. The Cleveland Browns’ Mike Priefer, speaking late last season when he was with the Minnesota Vikings, said there is no other choice.

“Going forward, teams are starting to experiment with different types of kicks,” Priefer said. “It won’t be the age-old high bouncer to the right or left. We’re going to have to challenge ourselves to have different types of kicks. You’re going to see kickers that can take advantage of the separation of the hands team unit. It’s going to change and evolve.”

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Indeed, two of the four successful onside kicks last season went straight down the middle of the field, an unconventional approach that isolated a few members of the return team and gave the kicker himself an opportunity to make the recovery. In both cases, the kicking team recovered the ball after it bounced off a potential receiver.

Beyond schematic changes, the NFL also will consider the Broncos’ proposal, which would require approval of at least 24 NFL owners. It provides a one-time alternative for the onside kick but does not replace it. The odds would be against converting the 15-yard play attempt, but the recent success rate on similar plays is much higher than the onside kick. Since 2010, teams have gone for it on fourth-and-15 a total of 53 times, converting 17 of them (32 percent).

The AAF version gives teams a fourth-and-12 from the 28. Teams have converted two out of five attempts, one by a 48-yard pass down the right sideline and another on a 20-yard catch-and-run. Meanwhile, the XFL — scheduled to begin play in 2020 — has partnered with The Spring League to experiment next with a variety of rule changes, including variations of the kickoff that among other aims will “guarantee” a return, according to the league.

Not all change is good, and no change is perfect, but the introduction of the AAF and XFL has sparked a new round of football innovation. Is there a better way for the NFL to preserve hope for dramatic late-game comebacks? The next few months should provide an answer, beginning with next week in Arizona.

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