Despite onside kick rules becoming prohibitively restrictive in the NFL throughout the past decade or so, there must have been something in the air this weekend. Maybe you were sitting on your couch in a post-Sunday brunch fugue and you saw one and thought to yourself, didn’t I already watch one of these this weekend? Or am I just getting déjà vu?
You didn’t just dream it — there were four onside kicks successfully recovered by the kicking team in the late fourth quarter of four different games this weekend. The Ravens recovered after the kick bounced off the shoulder of a Browns lineman; the Giants recovered after the kick was dropped by a receiver on the Chargers; the Bears recovered after the ball missed the hands of a Packers receiver (and ran it in for a touchdown that didn’t count); and on Monday night, the Cardinals got one last chance in a messy scrum against the Rams.
It should be noted that none of the four teams who recovered the kick actually, you know, won their game. Obviously, it’s a last-ditch play when you’re down by one or more scores with very little time left on the clock, so the teams are in a tough situation already, but “success” is relative in this case. Onside kicks can’t be advanced, which Khalil Herbert learned the hard way this weekend (or just forgot in the heat of the moment), which means that the offense still has to execute a few solid plays with under two minutes to actually get into the end zone again.
Perhaps the theoretical near-impossibility of successfully converting an onside kick has led special teams departments throughout the league to sort of shunt preparations for receiving them off to the side. Before the NFL cast its shadow over the fun parts of the onside kick, teams were able to strategize by lining up all ten non-kicking players on one side of the ball to increase their chances of grabbing the ball after it reached the designated 10 yards of forward motion. The NFL banned that strategy, as well as the “cluster formation,” in which the players would line up directly next to the kicker, allowing for virtually no creativity in the onside kick.
Then, the powers that be decided that there needed to be an intensely specific lineup for onside kicks, with regulations for where members of the kicking team need to be standing along the hashes and numbers, as well as rules for where the receiving team needs to be standing. They’ve effectively stomped out the running start for the kicking team, as well, with a 2018 rule that limited the kicking team to standing within a yard of the kickoff spot. It has essentially come down to the luck of the draw, which is probably why, in the 13 weeks before this weekend, only four onside kicks had been recovered all season.
For some reason, that number doubled in Week 14.
The sideline pooch kick is a solid choice if you can get a favorable bounce, and if a kicker is able to launch it just out of reach of the receiving player near the sideline without the ball going out of bounds, the kicking team just might be in luck. The issue with this play is that it’s not generally a surprise to the receiving team (bar a few situations, including Alabama’s onside against Clemson in the 2016 National Championship and the Saints’ successful conversion at the start of the second half in Super Bowl XLIV). Hitting a lineman in the shoulder, as the Ravens kicker did on Sunday, also seems to be a solid strategy, as long as enough members of the kicking team are still in the area rather than advancing.
Are we going to see this uptick in onsides continue? I’m sure that a lot of teams are going to be running drills for them this weekend, but without a close score at the end of the game, they’re virtually useless. Now, for more surprise mid-game onsides? That I would love to see, if they’re still even possible in today’s league.