Expecting More Surprise Onside Kicks

New-Orleands SaintsNew Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton called for an onside kick to open the second half of the Super Bowl in February. It caught the Indianapolis Colts off guard, changed the momentum of the game and stunned the football world.

Except for Kansas City Coach Todd Haley. As the halftime show ended, he turned to his wife to say what perhaps only one other person in the N.F.L. was thinking. Haley predicted the onside kick.

“Sean and I spent a lot of time together in Dallas,” Haley said. “We have a lot of similar personality traits.”

So maybe nobody should have been surprised when Haley opened the Chiefs’ game against the Colts in October with an onside kick. But at almost the same moment, St. Louis opened its game in Detroit with an onside kick.

What in the name of the Saints’ Thomas Morstead was going on?

Perhaps emboldened by New Orleans’s success — or maybe recognizing the need to unearth any edge when no team is dominant — N.F.L. coaches have delved deep into their playbooks this season to breathe life into a rare play, the surprise onside kick. From 2000 to 2009, teams tried the play 101 times in the first three quarters of games (not counting the last five seconds of the first half, when an onside kick is used to run off the remaining time), an average of 10.1 surprise onside kicks per regular season, according to Football Outsiders, which tracks every play of every game to analyze trends.

But Cleveland’s surprise onside kick attempt against the Jets last Sunday was the eighth in the league this season. N.F.L. teams are on a pace for 14.2 surprise onside kicks this season, an increase of 40 percent from the average over the last decade. Yet only two of the eight, 25 percent, have been recovered by the kicking team; historically, the recovery rate is about 60 percent.

The kick is unusual for a number of reasons, perhaps the most significant of which is its ripeness for second-guessing. Job security in the N.F.L. is tenuous at best, and coaches and players alike still marvel at Payton’s audacity in the most important game of his career. And they make an indisputable point: if the Colts had recovered the onside kick and traversed a short field to score, Payton would have been excoriated for making one of the worst calls ever.

Haley, who describes his coaching philosophy as “trying to think outside the box without being crazy,” has a reputation as something of a riverboat gambler, in part because he routinely avoids punts to try to convert on fourth down, too. But he undertook a series of considerations before trying the onside kick, reflecting the risk of the play even as it is having its star turn on game film.

Haley’s research showed that the Colts were especially proficient at scoring points on their first drives, and that they score around 28 points a game. The beauty of the onside kick, Haley determined, was that if the Chiefs recovered the ball (they did not), they would have stolen a possession from the Colts. If the Colts recovered, they would have a shorter distance to score — and scoring was almost a given, Haley figured, if Peyton Manning had the ball.

“They’re not going to be able to use nearly as much time to score, so in a sense, that’s a positive,” Haley said. “All we’re trying to do is get an extra possession or cut their time of possession.”

In the complex calculus of coaching, that was a no-lose situation. Even better: Haley’s research indicated that since 2000, 11 teams had opened a game with an onside kick, and 6 of those teams won the game. Yet there was no correlation between recovering the kick and winning. Not every kicker can disguise a kick well enough to catch the opponent unaware. Among the onside kicking styles are the squibber along the ground that takes funny bounces and the liner off the ground. But the most popular style for the surprise kick is the high hopper, in which the kicker drives the ball into the ground and it bounces high into the air.

San Francisco’s Joe Nedney could be the best kicker at masking his intentions, but he did not master the skill until his sixth N.F.L. season. Nedney developed his sleight of foot through hours of repetition by himself, he said, after he saw Miami’s Olindo Mare successfully execute two successive surprise onside kicks.

Nedney said that Mare’s approach to the ball was identical to the one he took if he was going to kick away, so he tried to emulate him. The result: Nedney does not slow down on his approach, but he aligns his plant foot and his body slightly past the football on the kickoff. He takes the full pendulum-like swing at the ball — critical for selling the kick to the receiving team — but reduces the force about 20 percent.

His foot touches the ball on the downswing, hitting the tip, which forces it into the ground. He does not follow through as he would on a normal kick, but by then, it does not matter. The ball bounces high and, he hopes, travels exactly 11 yards and descends outside the numbers. Nedney said he could consistently place the ball within a 2-yard “doughnut” of his target.

“It’s a constant lobbying effort on my part to get them to call it,” Nedney said. “The kick itself is easy to execute. The biggest challenge is you have to make sure it’s being done at a time of the game when it’s least expected. There used to be times when you wouldn’t expect something like that to happen.”

Those moments have dwindled as surprise onside kicks proliferate, certainly since Payton made the play a highlight-film favorite.

Mike Westhoff, the Jets’ special-teams coach, said he looked for opponents whose front-line return team might turn around a few seconds early to chase the kickoff, watching especially carefully if those players partly turn their backs and their legs to run downfield. Those players cannot reverse their stride in time to recover an onside kick. That is not what the Colts did in the Super Bowl, though, Westhoff said. The Saints got lucky that the ball bounced off the Colts’ Hank Baskett, but he had been in position to catch it.

Before the season, Westhoff said that his kickoff team was more likely to head downfield early than the Colts’ because the Colts play so conservatively. But Westhoff said he told his front-line return-team players to shuffle back two steps or so, never to turn and start running before the ball is kicked. Perhaps that is what Denver Coach Josh McDaniels meant when he said the Broncos tried the surprise onside kick against the Jets because they were vulnerable to it. (The Broncos recovered the kick.) That inspired an irritated Westhoff, who coached Mare in Miami, to proclaim that he had invented the kick.

Perhaps he did. But Payton’s swashbuckling persona is now inextricably linked to the onside kick. With each high-bouncing kick this season, coaches hope to steal a possession — and a little bit of Payton’s magic.

“The Saints were very lucky to get it,” Westhoff said. “It wasn’t like the Colts were out to lunch. But they had the aggressiveness and the guts to do it. A lot of times, that is all you need.”

Posted by: nytimes.com


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: