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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.
Even a certain football fan in the nation's capital praised coach Sean Payton's gambling instincts.
"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.
Of course, at the end of close games, the "hands squad" is always up front when an onside kick is likely.
The current popular style is the high bouncer.
"I'm pretty positive most kickers use it where you want to get the high bounce," says Jets kicker Nick Folk. "I think it's because you can hit it more consistently than you do the dribbler. You can pretty much tell an area where you can hit each time to get it up high.
"Once a week, I maybe just hit a couple to make sure we practice it. It's always in there for the end of the game, so you work on it for the guys to feel comfortable and familiar with it."
How about getting it "in there" for earlier in the game?
"That play's existed for quite a while," Rosburg says. "I don't think just because the Saints pulled it off that it's going to start a trend. The risk/reward really hasn't changed. People have run the onside kick, that was just the biggest one because it's on the biggest stage."
But Folk is more optimistic, while recognizing the hazards.
"I think it will happen more earlier," he says. "Guys are more creative with the way they hide the kick, and as it becomes more disguisable, you will see more of them.
"You do it to give your team a lift and an edge, but I think it still scares a lot of teams because the success rate is not high and you give up the ball in your area."
Ultimately, whoever calls for the onside kick _ it varies from team to team, but you can bet a Bill Belichick or Jeff Fisher is directly involved in the decision _ understands the impact success or failure can have on the outcome.
"It's available and you see it," Titans coach Fisher says. "We prepare for it on every kickoff. Coaches are going to look and scheme things up and see if they can have an opportunity to gain possession. We had three or four against the Colts four or five years ago. There were other reasons for that, but it is an effective tool. Clearly the Saints felt like they had an opportunity based on what they had seen."
In a way, the Saints also might have been as desperate as those teams who must try the onside kick in a game's dying moments.
"It's sort of like a sneak attack, and the Saints made it famous last year," Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff says. "I think in the Saints' situation, if you ask them, I'd be willing to bet you that they felt to win that game ... somehow, they needed to steal a possession. They had to run a fake, get a pick, do something to get an extra possession to beat that football team."
Westhoff, one of the NFL's deans of special teams, also believes the kicking team has an edge aside from the element of surprise.
"When those guys are flying at you, it's easier said than done to make that play," he says of players on the receiving team trying to field the kick. "Consequently, if you have the guts to try it, and you get a good kick, the odds are way in your favor that you're going to recover it.
"Now the question is whether you're going to get the good kick and do you have the guts to try it? The Saints had both and they got it, even though the ball should've been played by the Colts. And, that would've been catastrophic."
Instead, it was a catapult to a championship. And perhaps to a trend.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects to Thomas Morstead, 2nd paragraph.)
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