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The Art of Onside Kicking Has Been Reborn

Did new NFL rule changes eliminate the onside kick? Not quite—but there’s only one strategy that will work in the modern game.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

May the onside kick rest in peace. It was declared dead this offseason, after the NFL approved some rule changes. “The NFL’s new kickoff rules have made onside kicks impossible,” wrote USA Today. “The NFL just essentially eliminated onside kicks with new rules,” wrote The Western Journal. Optimum Scouting published a piece headlined: “The Death of Onside Kicks: Why NFL Rule Changes May Have Inadvertently Eliminated Them.”

The rule changes in question stem from a safety initiative to reduce injuries on kickoffs, which data have revealed to be football’s most dangerous play. Prior to this offseason, players on an NFL kicking team were given a 5-yard cushion to take a running start. Players with running starts achieve higher speeds, which can lead to greater impact on collisions, which can lead to potentially serious head and neck injuries. So the league did away with the running start. Now everybody on the kicking team other than the kicker must set up within 1 yard of the restraining line.

This dramatically increased the degree of difficulty in successfully executing the league’s most common onside-kick strategy. To recover an onside kick, the kicking team must send the ball at least 10 yards downfield—and the receiving team is allowed to stand exactly 10 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. Most successful onside kicks throughout the sport’s history have followed a similar formula: The kicking team directs the ball toward the sideline and hopes it hangs in the air long enough that the guys with the running start can get downfield to catch it and beat out the receiving team for possession of the ball. Here’s a compilation of successful NFL onside kicks through the years. Nearly all of them embrace this strategy:

Without the running start, the strategy is all but hopeless. The kicking team stands no chance of getting downfield in time to catch the ball. Here’s a clip of an onside kick from the Jets’ 34-16 win over the Broncos in October:

The ball hangs in the air just like Denver would hope. Perhaps in years past, a Broncos player may have managed to get a hand to it or disrupt the player on the Jets hands team attempting to catch the ball. But without the running start, the kicking team’s attempt to recover the ball is DOA. Jets receiver Quincy Enunwa settles under the kick with enough space to set up a nice picnic and snags the ball easily.

Here’s a Lions onside-kick attempt from last Sunday’s 24-9 loss to the Vikings. The ball takes a seemingly perfect bounce for Detroit, but the kick is still juuuuust out of reach:

Before this offseason’s rule changes, kicking teams already had a difficult time recovering onside kicks. An Advanced Football Analytics post from 2009 found that the success rate on onside kicks in the fourth quarter of games was around 20 percent; the Optimum Scouting article mentioned above looked at data since 2009 and discovered that the success rate had fallen to 8 percent. (Percentages were significantly higher on “surprise” onside kicks in the first three quarters of games.) The new rules should drop that percentage even lower.

But reports of the onside kick’s death have been exaggerated. While the most prevalent onside-kick strategy has been rendered ineffective, there is still one approach that can work.

NFL teams have tried to innovate onside-kick solutions given their new circumstances. In a 38-24 loss to the Patriots on October 4, the Colts had punter Rigoberto Sanchez kick the ball flat off of the ground with no tee, creating a strange spinning effect. I think the Colts were hoping that the ball would turn into a helicopter propeller and take flight. It looked really cool, but it did not work:

In a 24-17 loss to the Bears on September 17, the Seahawks had Australian-born punter Michael Dickson utilize a drop kick:

You can tell what Dickson was going for here. Since drop kicks don’t require a run-up, the receiving team couldn’t tell when Dickson was about to kick, or where. Several teams have incorporated drop kicks into surprise onside kicks over the past few years, but for the most part the drop kick has been a football footnote since the 1930s. It’s safe to say NFL teams are flummoxed by how to carry out onside kicks if they’re resorting to tactics that had been forgotten about since FDR’s first term.

However, it is my great privilege to announce that, contrary to reports, the onside kick is not dead. I present to you the greatest strategy of the NFL’s new era of onside kicks, as executed by Jacksonville’s Josh Lambo:

Lambo isn’t like most kickers. He was once a first-round pick in the MLS SuperDraft (for those who don’t know, the MLS refers to its draft as the SuperDraft, implying the existence of an MLS RegularDraft) and played goalie for FC Dallas. Well, he didn’t play—he never got into an official MLS game—but he was a professional goalkeeper. Goalkeepers tend to be tall, agile, and good with their hands. If an opposing striker has a breakaway, a keeper is expected to sprint at him, dive at his feet, and wrangle the ball.

And that’s more or less what Jacksonville asked Lambo to do during his successful onside kick, which came in the Jaguars’ 30-14 loss to the Chiefs in Week 5. Instead of kicking the ball toward the sideline, Lambo tapped it toward the middle of the field, slowly enough that he could run 10 yards in about the same amount of time the ball would take to travel that distance. While Lambo homed in on the ball, his teammates focused on blocking the Chiefs’ front line. That was legal: Players aren’t allowed to interfere with an opponent who’s trying to catch an airborne kick, but this onside kick hit the ground almost immediately, so blocking a receiving player was fair game.

Lambo sprinted ahead, dove at an opposing player’s feet, and wrangled the ball. It was perhaps the greatest goalkeeping performance of his career.

This wasn’t the first time that Lambo has pulled this stunt. He recovered an onside kick in a game against the Browns last year, although that was called back because one of his teammates was flagged for being offside. Miami’s Cody Parkey also recovered an onside kick using this technique last fall.

But the attempts by Lambo and Parkey last year were gimmicks. This year, such attempts represent the best method of recovering onside kicks. The NFL’s new rules prohibit 10 of 11 players on the kicking team from taking a running start. But the kicker still gets a running start, because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to kick the ball effectively. The kicker is now the only guy with enough momentum to get downfield in time to recover an onside kick.

Not all kickers are former soccer goalies. Most of them aren’t fast, and most aren’t well-equipped to get down and dirty in pursuit of a loose ball. So the Titans adopted a unique strategy: In a 27-20 loss to the Dolphins in Week 1, they had linebacker Daren Bates sneak up and take the onside kick instead of kicker Ryan Succop:

I love neat little tricks like this. Succop and Bates pretend they’re getting ready for a normal onside kick, right up until the moment that Bates sprints forward. Unfortunately, Bates’s kick wasn’t particularly good—it carried too far for him to successfully recover it.

The Giants, however, did find success on a kick down the middle. Kicker Aldrick Rosas directed the ball at the closest player on the Cowboys hands team in Week 2, hoping that he wouldn’t be able to react in time. Rosas wasn’t the Giants player who ultimately recovered the kick, but the down-the-middle kick still worked.

There have been 27 attempted onside kicks so far this season. The only two that the kicking team recovered were those kicks by Lambo and Rosas. That comes out to a dismal 7.4 percent success rate—worse than the mark in past years.

Right now, the only way to recover an NFL onside kick is to tap the ball down the middle of the field. Most teams haven’t realized this, adhering to the old strategy of popping the ball to the outside. This means receiving teams are still smart to align their hands teams along the edges of the field; that’s where most kicks will go. Yet the few teams willing to send onside kicks down the middle can exploit an undefended portion of the field.

Whenever the NFL passes a new rule designed to enhance player safety, it’s accused of ruining the game. But that isn’t true: Any rule change that makes a particular type of play obsolete inevitably lead to the development of new strategies. In this case, changes are forcing kickers to make non-kicking plays. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy watching the least athletic player on an NFL roster taking part in a steal-the-bacon-esque mad scramble to recover a football he kicked. The onside kick as you know it might be dead, but the new version is even sillier and more interesting than the old one.