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Element of surprise key to onside kicks
The Who had barely finished their halftime show, highlighted by their rock anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” when the New Orleans Saints pulled off the best trick in last February’s Super Bowl.
Not only did they befuddle the Indianapolis Colts with Thomas Morstead’s onside kick that Chris Reis recovered in a wild scramble, but they swung the game in their favor. Drew Brees hit Pierre Thomas for a touchdown six plays later, giving the Saints their first lead on the way to their first NFL championship.
So enamored of their tomfoolery, the Saints paid tribute to the move when their kickoff team opened an August intrasquad scrimmage with the same play, called “Ambush.” And the Saints‘ return team was even more fooled than the Colts, with Roman Harper making an uncontested recovery.
“I make some tough decisions every day, but I never decided on an onside kick in the second half,” President Barack Obama said. “That took some guts. … I’m glad that thing went right.”
All of which raises the question: Why don’t more teams try the onside kick?
In 2009, 48 were attempted, all but eight near the end of games when teams were desperately trying to catch up. Of the eight that came earlier in games and had the element of surprise, three (37.5 percent) were successful.
Hardly the kind of numbers that would entice coaches to call for such skullduggery very often.
“It’s the risk, reward,” Browns kicker Phil Dawson says. “It’s like a short par-4. You pull out the driver and try to put it on the green, and you’re looking at eagle _ or you’re walking away with a bogey. If the situation presents itself, and then you call it, you have a chance to make a big play. But if you don’t, the other team has the ball on the other side of the field and they’re one first down from field-goal range. That’s the dilemma.”
With many NFL coaches being conservative to the core, even considering an onside kick can be a stretch. But doing it in the Super Bowl against one of the most potent offenses and best quarterbacks in league history _ even when your own offense has the same explosiveness and a star QB _ is a statement that just might inspire some daring throughout a copycat league.
“That was awesome. I’ll tell you what, the pressure you feel as a kicker on a surprise onside is pretty intense,” Dawson says.
“The reward is high,” adds Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg. “Depends on what kind of team you have, depends on what kind of offense your opponent has. It depends on how they play it, it depends on how good your kicker is. All those things are factors. Some guys are really good at it, some teams don’t defend it as well as others. You factor all those things together, then the risk/reward changes.
“You have to factor in your skill, your scheme, what they’re doing. Obviously the Saints saw something and took advantage of it.”
There are a variety of ways of taking advantage. Years ago, the only type of onside kick was the dribbler. Rules changes against loading up one side of the field with players from the kicking team have made the dribbler nearly extinct.
At times, kickers would send a line drive directly at an opponent on the front line of the return team. That forced coaches to place players with good hands into those areas.
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