On 7th February 2010, shortly after The Who played the Super Bowl half time show, perhaps one of the greatest plays in the history of the NFL took place.
Trailing 10-6 going into the extended half time break, the New Orleans Saints started the second half with a plan, “Ambush”. Thomas Morstead at the end of his rookie season kicked a surprise onside kick to the Indianapolis Colts. The fate of Super Bowl 44 was changed in an instant as the kick was recovered amidst an almighty scramble by safety Chris Reis, instead of the Colts getting a chance to extend their lead the Saints scored a touchdown on the drive. They never relinquished the momentum and went on to win their first ever Championship by a score of 31-17.
This is one of the gutsiest moves by a head coach on the way to winning a Super Bowl and Sean Payton is still revered as one of the boldest playcallers out there, but what are the chances that we see a similar drama in the upcoming game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams?
Not great unfortunately.
Onside kicks have provided some of the big drama towards the end of classic games with teams down by more than a touchdown having to regain the ball with very little of the clock left to go.
A study in 2009 showed that even when expected an onside kick was successful approximately 20% of the time, this has stood the test of time. In 2017, 12 kicks were successfully recovered from a total of 57 attempted. This success rate was much higher when the kick was unexpected such as the example from the New Orleans Saints, which were successful at a whopping 60%.
In 2018 this has dropped to a meagre 8%, that’s only 4 kicks recovered from 50 attempts!
This massive drop is the result of the 2017 season, when the league was rocked by news that the amount of concussion cases reported had increased significantly. The league had to act, and the games’ most brutal play got a facelift. Gone was the five-yard cushion to allow players a run up prior to the kick, gone also wedge blocks, and the ability to use formations to disguise their intent. All with the aim of reducing the top speed players achieve and the heaviest of hits they deliver on these high risk plays.
So, has the NFL managed to eliminate late game drama by effectively killing one of its most dramatic and watchable plays?
Yes….and no. The league is likely to herald the fact that concussion cases decreased by 24% in 2018 (that’s 29% if you count the regular season only). There has also been a significant uptake in “more advanced” head protection, 71% of the leagues players now favouring the new designs compared to 41% last year with the expectation that even more sign up to it for next season. So, the chances of the league revisiting the onside kick are slim, it’s going to be up to the coaches to evolve and be more inventive in the ways they wish to achieve their goal of recovering the ball on an onside kick, something we have seen already.
In other areas the league was also bold in enforcing new regulations. They’ve introduced new roughing the passer penalties, which drew ire from fans (and Clay Matthews) early in the season. They clamped down on helmet to helmet hits and loosened the rules around what constituted a catch. These new rules have allowed players to work on their best ability…. availability!
The availability of the league’s best stars has led 2018 to be one of the best in recent season in terms of late game drama, Aaron Rodgers second half comeback vs the Bears? Drew Brees in just about every Saints game this year? When you look purely at the number of late game comebacks, 2018 had 71 comebacks, only two other seasons have had as many since 2012, late game drama hasn’t gone away, just like many other aspect of the NFL it has merely evolved.
This provides us with an intriguing prospect, the NFL has inadvertently managed to kill the late game miracle of onside kicks by changing the rules on the kick off, but they may also have found the answer.
By keeping their players healthy and on the field they may be able to let their superstars provide the entertainment they are so handsomely rewarded for and fans crave. I may well mourn the late game onside kick, but the NFL is headed in a bold new direction and it promises to be as dramatic as ever.