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Surprise onside kicks a percentage play

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Posted June 01, 2010 @ 9:13 a.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

Following his team's Super Bowl victory, Saints punter and kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead recalled his emotions when New Orleans coach Sean Payton notified him during the long halftime break that he'd be kicking onside at the start of the second half.

"I wasn't worried," Morstead said. "I was just terrified."

Based on the importance of the game, Morstead had a right to be a bit nervous. But had the rookie taken a moment to look at the statistics of unexpected onside kicks — not counting the kicks that take place at the end of the game with the kicking team trailing — he'd have realized that there wasn't as much to be terrified about as he initially feared.  

Brian Burke, the founder of, said his research has determined that the better chance a team has of winning the game, the better chance they have of recovering an onside kick. Using his formula for win probability (WP), Burke examined past games and evaluates the chance of a team coming out with a win based on previous results. When a team has a 10 percent or lower WP, they recover less than 20 percent of their onside kicks. But when the WP is between 40 and 50 percent — meaning the game hasn't been decided to either side — the success rate for recovering onside kicks is more than 60 percent.

"The success rate is much, much higher when it's not obvious that a team is going to do an onside kick. So, I measured how obvious a kick would be based on how far behind a team was and how unlikely it was they were going to win," Burke explained. "(The Saints' onside kick) was definitely a good move, not only because it was successful, but the numbers work out where having the ball is so important."

At the time Morstead lined up and prepared to kick, with the Colts winning 10-6 and 30 minutes of game time remaining, the Saints had a 40 percent WP. After safety Chris Reis recovered the kick and Drew Brees drove New Orleans down the field for the go-ahead touchdown at 11:41 in the third, the Saints' WP had jumped to 62 percent.

"Having the ball is so much more valuable, while field position isn't so valuable anymore," Burke said. "Exactly where you are on the field isn't as important as just having the ball. It works out so that it's a good gamble to try the unexpected onside kick."

Using a play the Saints call "Ambush," Morstead ran up to the ball as if he were going to boot it deep, but instead tapped it to his left. The ball flew 15 yards before bouncing off the hands of Colts backup WR Hank Baskett. Reis, a gunner lined up on the left side, dove on the loose ball and bobbled it before finally maintaining control from the bottom of a 10-player pile.

The Saints declined Pro Football Weekly's request to talk about the onside kick, but it is safe to assume they saw something in their film preparation that led them to believe the Colts would be vulnerable to the surprise play. It is likely they expected Baskett to run downfield to block when the ball was kicked, as would normally occur on a deep kickoff. The reserve didn't bail, instead holding his ground as the ball approached. The only problem — he didn't catch it. Instead he deflected it toward the Saints' oncoming recovery team, allowing Reis to capture possession.  

Longtime college and NFL special-teams coordinator Gary Zauner said that the decision of a kicking team to try an onside kick or not try one at all depends on the opponent's front-line players. If these blockers are staying home and waiting to see if the kick is over their heads, it is smart to kick deep. But if they are sneaking back and trying to get a head start on blocking, they are opening up a gap that would allow for the trick play to succeed.

"When you're scouting it, the first thing you look at is their front-line guys. They have to be 10 yards off, but some teams start to cheat and the center man might be two, three yards off the line. And then you start seeing some guy who's anticipating the approach of the kick and he starts bailing," explained Zauner, who now runs kicking camps.

The coach said that the combination of the receiving team's alignment and personnel dictate if it's smart to attempt the surprise kick.

"If you get a defensive player playing on special teams or an offensive guy who just got done with his reps, now all of a sudden he's got to go back out there on kickoffs," Zauner said. "So their mind isn't right sometimes, they get a little lax, they try to cheat a couple yards so they have to do less running. And that's the guy you take advantage of."

The NFL is a copy-cat league, so when one team has success with a certain play call, it's not rare to see other teams follow. New Orleans' use of an unexpected onside kick in such a big game might lead to more "Ambush"-like plays in 2010. Burke equated the play to a poker bluff, explaining that not only does it have a short-term benefit when successful, but it provides a long-term reminder to opponents as well.

"It does a couple of things. One, in the situation like the Super Bowl, it can directly help you win if you're successful," Burke said. "But in general, the other teams have to respect that possibility at any time, and that's going to make your regular kickoffs that much more successful. The receiving team is going to have to put men up on the line, they'll put in 'hands' guys perhaps instead of their usual blockers, and that's going to make your kickoffs that much deeper."

Bears special-teams coordinator Dave Toub agrees with Burke that unexpected kicks will be more common, but for a different reason. He had both his kicking and coverage units preparing for the surprise during Bears minicamp last week because he believes that with the new overtime rules, where a recovered onside kick allows a team to win with a field goal, more teams might try kicking short.

"I do think the new rules, the overtime rule, will have some impact," Toub said. "I think you will see more onside kicks because if a team kicks a field goal and then the other team kicks a surprise onside kick and gets the ball, the game's over.

Morstead's unexpected onside kick might have taken only one second off the game clock but the legacy of that game-changing play could be felt for years to come.


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