Risky Business Week 12: Onside Kicks

Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Beginning in 2018, the NFL implemented a rule change that limited a kicking team from loading one side of the ball and also prohibited the players from getting a running start. This was presumably done for player safety and was immediately perceived as a rule that would reduce the effectiveness of onside kicks. Beginning in 2011, when the kickoff was moved to the 35-yard line, we can examine how onside kicking behavior has changed as a result of the 2018 rule change. For simplicity we have divided the kicks into the first three quarters (surprise onside kicks) and the fourth quarter (expected onside kicks).This naive approach does not capture all of the separation between surprise and expected onside kicks but should serve as a reasonable approximation.

Average Onside Kick attempts per Year:

*2020 data is extrapolated from week 12

Surprisingly, the rate has increased slightly for desperation (fourth quarter) onside kicks, which are generally expected by the receiving team. Not so surprisingly, the rate of surprise onside kicks has gone down significantly, although these were rarely used in the first place. What about the recovery rates during this same time period?

Onside Kick Recovery Rates (with statistical uncertainties of ± 1 standard deviation):

Both time periods show a significant premium to the surprise (Q1-Q3) onside kick. It also appears that the recovery rate for onside kicks of both varieties was reduced by the 2018 rule change. Armed with this information, let’s examine how a kicking strategy can be assessed in 2020. An excellent example occurred this Sunday in Cincinnati.

With 2:33 remaining in the game, the Bengals were kicking off to the Giants with a 19-17 deficit and just one timeout. The Giants’ receiving team was keenly aware of the possibility of an onside kick attempt, but the Bengals chose instead to kick deep. Dion Lewis appeared willing to let it go into the end zone for a touchback, but an unfortunate bounce at the 2-yard line forced him to attempt a return. He was able to secure a less-than-ideal starting position for the Giants’ offense at the 13-yard line. This was certainly more favorable than a touchback for the Bengals, and after a three-and-out by the Giants they found themselves at midfield with 57 seconds to score a game-winning field goal. Unfortunately, a sack of Brandon Allen on first down and fumble recovery by the Giants’ Jabaal Sheard sealed the Bengals’ fate.

In order to assess the viability of an onside kick attempt we will look at two separate scenarios of a touchback and the actual kick that resulted in the Giants’ beginning their drive at the 13-yard line. We will also operate on the assumption that both a successful and unsuccessful onside kick will advance the ball 10 yards and the clock 5 seconds. The required recovery rate can be determined by understanding the Bengals’ game-winning chance (GWC) from the relevant game states, per the EdjSports simulation model.

Bengals Scenarios


Bengals’ required onside kick recovery rate assuming touchback on normal kickoff:

  1. Risk: 10.9% - 7.9% = 3.0%
  2. Reward: 61.7% - 10.9% = 50.8%

(3.0) / (50.8 + 3.0) = 5.6%

Required recovery rate: 5.6%

Bengals’ required onside kick recovery rate assuming actual kick (13-yard line):

  1. Risk: 15.1% - 7.9% = 7.2%
  2. Reward: 61.7% - 15.1% = 46.6%

(7.2) / (46.6 + 7.2) = 13.0%

Required recovery rate: 13.0%

With the best estimate of an NFL average recovery rate since 2018 at 8.4%, it appears the Bengals made a mistake by kicking deep if a touchback occurs but gain in the actual outcome. We can also determine the break-even net yardage of a deep kick compared to the NFL average (expected) onside kick recovery rate of 8.4%. That turns out to be the 20-yard line, per EdjSports’ model. Although the Bengals managed to surpass that threshold on Sunday, doing so is a pretty tall order. The average expected starting position for the receiving team on a deep kick is approximately the 26-yard line.

The Bengals could argue their strategy was correct as it ultimately put them in a winnable position at midfield with 57 seconds remaining. Their GWC at that point was 63.1%, which was even more favorable than a recovered onside kick (61.7%). However, that would be cherry-picking the results. We can only assess their kicking strategy based on the best information at the point of decision, and in this case, we have to charge them with an error.

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8 comments, Last at 01 Dec 2020, 1:48pm

2 Unsure

We would have to go through and mark which kickoffs were squibs since that isn't made clear in the play-by-play. I treat squib kicks differently in DVOA but it's a bit of a guessing game based on how far the kickoff went and how much time was left in the quarter. I'm probably missing a few squibs that went farther than usual, which would influence the average.

3 I assume the process is non…

In reply to by Aaron Schatz

I assume the process is non-trivial, as they are a variety of squibs, with old-fashioned poor kicks mixed in.

4 Lob wedge

I would love to see kickers try a lob wedge type kick behind the initial wall the of receiving team and ahead of the the deep return players. The soft middle of the receiving team if you will. 

A tough kick to execute for sure, but you can see how hard it is to recover a conventional onside kick since the rules changed in 2018. 

Either they recover the ball or the other result of this type of kick in the Bengals case is a semi deep kick off (if they don’t recover). A 3 and out is still a good result for the kicking team with some time left and with a FG or less deficit.  

Plus if the ball hits the turf, you never know how the ball will bounce. 

5 https://www.youtube.com…

In reply to by edholiday


VT ran one against Syracuse in 2003 that was recovered at the Syracuse 30. There is absolutely a hole there in most alignments, and you can catch teams off-guard.

6 It would need to be pretty…

In reply to by edholiday

It would need to be pretty accurate.  Defenders can fair catch that type of kick.  If it's too high, someone will get under it, if its not high enough the kicking team players won't have time to get there.  Still a good change of pace attempt, though, especially if the receiving team's alignment leaves too big of a empty zone.

7 In that same line of thought

In reply to by edholiday

Kickers are becoming more and more accurate, and able to do things never before considered possible with a football.  Maybe for the surprise onside attempts, one could kick a line drive right at someone on the front line of the receiving team.  Worst case, he catches it, or steps out of the way, and the ball is sent bouncing erratically down the field and is eventually picked up by the return man.  Best case it bounces back to the kicking team to recover.

NFL is always evolving, we should be seeing alternative onside kick strategies and styles to adapt to the rule changes.