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3 possible ways to fix the NFL’s onside kick problem

Onside kicks are a foregone conclusion now. Here are three much more interesting alternatives.

A Lions player is ready to fall on an onside kick, with 2 teammates and a Bears player nearby
An onside kick in the NFL has become nearly impossible.

The onside kick, as the NFL knows it, is dead.

In 2018, the league reworked its kickoff rules in an effort to make it safer. Players are no longer allowed to run up to the line of scrimmage alongside their kicker, sticking them no further than one yard behind the ball until it is kicked. Eliminating that run-up has lessened the crushing downfield momentum that made this play so dangerous in the past.

That’s great for special teamers. It’s also terrible for desperate teams trying to squeak out an extra possession at the end of a game.

The onside kick has been an unexpected casualty of this recent reform. The last-ditch play — which takes advantage of a kickoff being a live ball that can be recovered by either team — relies on a kicker’s ability to keep a bouncing ball close enough to his teammates for them to recover before the receiving team can. By rule, that ball has to travel at least 10 yards before it can be recovered by the kicking side. That made a running start paramount to the play’s success.

Without it, players on the kicking side now find themselves two or three steps short when the ball crosses the 10-yard threshold that puts a kickoff up for grabs. In the past two years, the odds of recovering your own onside attempt have gone from “finding an onion ring in your Burger King fries” to nearly impossible.

The odds of recovering an onside kick, 2017-present

Year Onside kick recovery rate Numbers
Year Onside kick recovery rate Numbers
2017 21% 11 of 54
2018 7% 4 of 56
2019 7% 2 of 30

Per Pro Football Reference’s play finder, teams have attempted 86 onside kicks since the run-up was barred. They’ve recovered six of them — a 6.9 percent success rate. No team has done it more than once. The Dolphins recovered two fewer onside kicks in 2017 as the entire league has in the season-plus since. The first successfully recovered kick in 2019 was the result of Michael Thomas getting overzealous in his coverage at the end of a game where the Bears had no earthly chance of a comeback:

The second was the result of Miami taking the Bills by surprise by breaking out an onside attempt in the second quarter:

This is a problem. The onside kick has gone from one of the most exciting plays in the game to its most predictable. What was once the last valiant flop of a caught fish trying to escape the dock and plunge back toward the water is now the mechanical shoveling of ice onto a supermarket seafood display.

How can we fix it? Here are three possible solutions that could help.

1. Cut the distance an onside kick has to travel before it can be recovered from 10 yards to 7

Taking away the extra ground covered by a running start has significantly reduced the chance for the kicking team to get to the ball on an onside kick. The NFL won’t bring back the old kickoff rule, though, not when it’s more focused on player protection than ever before.

The simplest tweak would be to bridge the gap between the distance kicking teams used to cover, and how far they can currently get before the ball reaches the receiving team.

There’s no guarantee this would bring any major change, however. Shortening the distance the kick has to travel to 7 yards would give the kicking team a better opportunity to fall on it. It would also lessen the amount of time the receiving team would have to wait to recover it as well — even if they’re stuck a full 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage when the play starts.

Forcing this front line of receivers to make a quick run-up to cover that 3-yard gap would add an extra wrinkle to the play and create more mistakes. It’s easier to catch a ball from a standing position than while moving forward and while 3 yards closer from getting hit by an opponent, after all.

It would also lead to more onside kicks out of bounds due to the sharper angle to the sideline from a kicker who only needs to cover 7 yards downfield compared to 10. This would result in officials not having a line to determine the 10-yard boundary, which could be amending by moving all kickoffs back 2-3 yards.

This is the least complicated fix, and it might not cause any noticeable on-field change.

2. Make onside drop kicks legal and disallow fair catches within 20 yards of the kickoff origin

Baltimore got creative in Week 3 when Justin Tucker uncorked a high-arcing dropkick in an attempt to help his team claw back from a 33-28 fourth-quarter deficit.

It failed for several reasons, the most apparent of which being that returner Mecole Hardman was able to simply wave the kick off with a fair catch. This eliminated the Ravens’ opportunity to recover the ball without it touching a Kansas City player first. It also may not have been a valid play at the time and is definitely illegal now, according to Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh.

What if we bring back the drop kick and make Baltimore’s unorthodox onside kick the new standard by eliminating kickoff fair catches within 20 yards of the kicking line?

This would allow a more-practiced drop kicker (no disrespect to Tucker, by the way, but this was the first time he’s attempted such a kick in a game situation) to launch a giant parabola of a kick that lands somewhere between 10 and 20 yards away from the kickoff spot. That would give players on each side time to settle under the ball and jostle for possession. It would also create some memorable scrums, like a much more densely populated version of Australian Rules Football’s biggest plays.

The problem, of course, is this would be high-impact chaos that puts receivers in harm’s way of unprotected shots from sprinting special teamers. A well-placed dropkick would be akin to a punt, only surrounded by more static from players who only have to cover 20 yards to get to the ball. While members of the kicking team wouldn’t build up the kind of momentum a gunner does on those plays, it would still lead to big collisions.

Additionally, forming a scrum around a rapidly plummeting ball could create a bigger advantage for kicking teams than the league would want in an onside kicking situation. A well-executed dropkick into a madcap crowd could push the odds of recovery closer to 50 percent than the tenable 20 percent the league saw in 2017.

3. Replace the onside kick with a fourth-and-long situation

This may sound familiar if you’re a fan of since-shuttered spring football leagues. The Alliance of American Football (AAF), may it rest in peace (RIP), eschewed kickoffs entirely in its lone, aborted season in 2019. Instead, teams that wanted the ball back after scoring — if there were less than five minutes left in the game or they trailed by at least 17 points — would face a fourth-and-12 situation from their own 28-yard line.

If they gained 12+ yards, they kept the ball. If they didn’t, their opponent got the ball wherever it was stopped.

That hits the sweet spot of probability the league’s looking for in its desperation plays. Between the start of 2018 and Week 5 of 2019, NFL teams have seen 1,122 situations where they’ve faced third or fourth down and between 12 and 20 yards to go and attempted a pass (runs were excluded from the metric, because that’s not an earnest attempt to gain the necessary yardage). Of those plays, 184 of them ended in first downs — or 16.4 percent.

That would nearly triple a team’s chances of regaining possession compared to the NFL’s onside kick recovery rate over the same period. That makes things tougher for the receiving team, but they get a benefit too. Make a stop and they’ll receive the ball inside their opponent’s 40-yard line, at most one first down from field goal range.

This would also give the league the option to eliminate kickoffs entirely, thus taking one of the game’s most dangerous plays out of the game.

Of these options, the third makes the most sense — which is probably why the Broncos brought it to the league’s competition committee this spring. Their version made it a fourth-and-15 from the kicking team’s own 35. Third or fourth down passes with 15+ yards to go have been successful 14.1 percent of the time since 2018.

That proposal didn’t pass the owners’ vote, but the committee (except for Giants co-owner John Mara) were reportedly amenable to the idea.

That option is safer than an explosive sprint to a bouncing or quickly-dropping kick. It rewards good teams for making smart plays rather than subjecting them to the whims of an ovoid’s unpredictable bounces. It creates room for reasonable hope compared to the 0-for-16 slate the current onside situation has dumped on losing teams this fall.

The league hasn’t been shy about changing its rules in response to on-field issues. If the NFL can make pass interference reviewable and twist its ever-tightening screws on roughing the passer calls, then there’s no reason why we can’t get an onside kick alternative with a success rate of more than six percent in 2020 and beyond.