When you’re down two scores against an opponent in a football game and time is running out, your slim chances of winning often hinge on scoring and then recovering an onside kick.
A successful onside kick gives you a chance to get the ball back, score again and either win right then and there or, if you’re down 21 and you’re the 2013 Indianapolis Colts, get the ball back twice in four minutes and erase a 35-14 deficit.
If it’s unsuccessful, you’re not likely to see the ball again as your opponent runs out the clock.
The biggest reason for this is that the overload formation, where most of the players line up on the same side of the kicker, was outlawed due to injury-risk reasons last year, along with allowing players to get a running start before the ball is kicked. Players now have to run from a dead stop, the logic being that collisions at the point of contact on kickoffs are the single most likely play in all of football to cause injury.
The Alliance of American Football, seeing the injury risks, decided to do away with onside kicks entirely, giving teams that have just scored the ball the option to get the ball on their own 28-yard line and setting them up with an instant fourth-and-12 situation if they’re down by more than 17 points at any point in the game or down by any score in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter.
They then have to run a play to get the yardage; succeed, and they get a first down and a fresh possession just like any other fourth-down conversion.
The NFL is now looking at that, plus a proposal for the Competition Committee to come up with its own alternative to onside kicks.
The idea was first advanced by then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano in 2012 and has been put forth once again by the Denver Broncos.
The Schiano plan called for a fourth-and-15 from the 30-yard line. The plan under consideration by the league now would spot the fourth-and-15 from the 35, the same line of scrimmage where kickoffs are taken from today.
Unlike the AAF’s rule, however, the NFL team would be allowed only one such play per game. Also unlike the AAF, the NFL would allow teams to use the play only in the fourth quarter.
Schiano originally came up with the idea when he coached at Rutgers in 2010, after one of his players, Eric LeGrand, suffered a severe spinal injury on a kickoff.
Conversions on fourth-and-15 are successful roughly 15 to 20 percent of the time, largely congruent with pre-rule-change onside kick conversion rates.
The arguments against eliminating the onside kick are themselves not to be discounted.
For one thing, you’re changing a rule that has been in American football since before the NFL even existed; before the forward pass was invented, the “free kick,” borrowed from rugby, allowed a team to advance the ball forward by kicking it even when it was still illegal to throw it, and some of the ancient squads got quite adept at moving the ball upfield that way. Remnants of that rule still exist with the drop kick, even though nobody has scored on one of those in the NFL since Doug Flutie did it on an extra point Jan. 1, 2006.
(Curiously, that ancient dropkick rugby rule still exists; in 2015, New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski picked up the ball from the tee and flipped it to Nate Ebner, who dropkicked it to try and catch the Miami Dolphins off guard — a dropkick, like a field goal, is a live ball. However, it didn’t work.)
For another thing, you’re removing a duty from a placekicker beyond kicking extra points and field goals; there is an art to the onside kick, and some kickers are better at it than others.
And what’s more, onside kicks create a level of anticipation that fourth-and-15 simply doesn’t inspire in fans. An onside kick is a chaotic scramble for a completely unpredictable bouncing ball — the shape of a football is pivotal to an onside kick because unlike, say, bouncing a perfectly round ball the way one dribbles a basketball or bounces a tennis ball before a serve, if you drop a football, you never know which direction it’s going to head off in because it’s pointed.
So on the one hand you have action, thrills and tradition. On the other hand you have reduced injury risk and a higher chance of success, along with requiring the same offense that is losing to execute a play to earn the right to continue its comeback attempt, which makes a game of chance into a game of skill.
No matter what the NFL decides, there will be controversy.
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