Cerebral Football: The Onside Kick As A Weapon

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I’m fast becoming a huge fan of Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and that hasn’t always been the case.

One of my biggest beefs with McCarthy was the number of mathematical and situational errors he made in the early part of the 2010 season. Without question, these decisions didn’t give the Packers the best opportunity to win certain games under their specific conditions.

But (for reasons that should be obvious) I’ve forgiven McCarthy. I even sent him a letter and promised an oath of loyalty and that starts now.

McCarthy’s use of the surprise onside kick is nothing short of tactical genius. An onside kick’s success rate is directly proportionate to the element of surprise, so one should choose the most unlikely spots in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.

Let’s look at McCarthy’s use of the surprise onside kick over the past couple years and why he’s been so successful.

2009 Wild Card playoff game at Arizona — Packers are down by two touchdowns in the third quarter versus a Kurt Warner-led offense that hadn’t been stopped all day. The upside for an onside kick was huge in this spot, while the downside was minimal. Anyone watching that game knew Arizona would score a touchdown regardless of field position. It was just that type of game. By executing a surprise onside in the third quarter, McCarthy gave his team a much better chance of succeeding than had he waited until later in the game when Arizona would be expecting it.

2010 versus the Patriots, opening kickoff — Brilliant! Why? Why would anyone be expecting it? It was a revolutionary call like New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton’s onside call to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. Both were bold coaching moves that set the bar higher and made top football people take their critical thinking to the next level — that an onside kick isn’t just used in the fourth quarter.

Yesterday versus the Broncos, 50 seconds left in the first quarter — Even more brilliant! This is the first case I can recall where the surprise onside was used as a weapon by a team in the lead and expected to win. If you happened to TiVo the game and watched the play again, you’ll notice that not only were the Broncos not expecting it, neither were the announcers, the director, cameraman and fans. Now that’s a situation where an onside kick is going to succeed at a very high rate, especially when it’s Mason Crosby kicking.

Although statistics on the subject vary, an onside kick that is expected is only successful about 20 percent of the time, or one in five. A surprise onside kick is successful around 60 percent of the time, or three in five.

Taking it to the next level?

With Crosby’s ability to seemingly hit a perfect and deceptive ball at will, should the Packers be doing this more often? Should the team push the boundaries further and consider even more bizarre spots to pull off an onside kick?

As long as these onside attempts remain a surprise, there are an awful lot of reasons to do it even more often. Given the success of the Packers defense in adverse situations it sure makes the downside smaller. With Crosby kicking the ball the way he does, the upside is even greater.

from AdvancedNFLStats.com

For those wanting to explore this more, here is an excellent article from AdvancedNFLStats.com. It goes deeper into the mathematical side of the equation and deserves to be read in full rather than paraphrased.

When will McCarthy strike with his secret weapon next? Probably when you, I and everyone else least expects it and that’s exactly the way it should be.

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10 Comments on "Cerebral Football: The Onside Kick As A Weapon"

  1. Shawn iltarion

    These stats may very well fall by the wayside.

    You have to keep in mind that the rules have changed. Since over half of Crosby’s kicks are going to be touchbacks anyway, teams will worry less about the return and more and more about the possibility of an onside kick.

    Yes, this Sunday’s play was brilliant. An onside kick by the defending champ at home while leading the game? Crazy.

    But like Chicago’s fake punt, it is a gambit is likely to only work once. I wouldn’t try it again any time soon.

  2. chitter

    Although the stats will change a little bit, I don’t think they’ll fall by the wayside either. If the break-even point based on the older statistics was 42.4% and the average surprise onside was recovered at 60%, the rule changes will not account for that big a discrepancy.

    With Crosby not booming touchbacks at the rate of some kickers, teams still must be prepared to run back kicks against the Packers. If Green Bay forces special teams coordinators to put extra men closer to 10 yards off the ball, that will obviously take away from their ability to set up returns as effectively. In that case we gain accordingly.

    Another thing to consider about surprise onside kicks that keep the percentage high is the ability for the kicking team to call off the surprise at the last second. The ability to abort the plan, without penalty is a tremendous advantage that guarantees the surprise is only attempted under optimum conditions.

  3. TyKo Steamboat

    This tactical risk was obviously well scouted by the GB coaching staff…they watched film of the Doncos front-line discipline. And timing was everything…in time, teams will have forgotten we did this…an excellent Christmas day suprise the the Bears or perhaps a way to ring-in the New Year vs. the Lions ;)

  4. Ryan

    I am glad to see that you have finally become a fan of MM. I have always liked him as a coach, primarily because I think he is an excellent play-caller. Last year I would always say that he can be a bit boring as a head coach, as in, never go for a gutsy/surprise/trick play. Last year all of that changed. We went for and should have converted a fake field goal against Minnesota and then executed a brilliant onside kick at NE, as this article noted.

    As for the frequency of the onside kicks, I think you made the strongest counterpoint to your own argument about increasing the frequency. The reason they have been so successful is because they have been so surprising. If you do it more often, teams will always be ready for it. You can guarantee that for the next few weeks, every time the Pack kicks off the opposing head coach will say watch for the onsides…

    I love the call but it has to be used extremely rarely to continue to work. By rarely, I mean once or twice a year.

  5. chitter

    Absolutely Ryan. As the article I referenced stated at the very end, it’s important to find that equilibrium between normal kickoffs and surprises in order to create the most problems for your opponent. The frequency maybe could be just a little bit higher, but I certainly agree with you that we’re using it very effectively.

    The thing to realize is that it doesn’t have to work every time for it to be the correct play either. It’s not the end of the world when it fails because the situations won’t be as dire because the kicks WILL be a surprise. When keeping in mind that roughly a 42% success rate makes it a break-even proposition and that Crosby has an uncanny knack to hitting the ball perfectly, we could be picking our spots a little more often.

    I do realize that people will forget about the past success and call it a bad play when it doesn’t work, but that is simply incorrect and comes with the territory. We’re 3 for 3 by my estimation and way ahead of the curve. I hope we continually look for an edge in this area and will say that even if the next three fail.

    I also predict that Crosby unveils some other method of onside kick we haven’t seen yet. Everyone will be ready for one thing…and he’s going to hit them with something else. Wait for it.

  6. Shawn iltarion

    Plus, you have to take into account that our offense allows us to do these things. This is not a plus-side risk for other teams, regardless of the numbers. Our offense allows us to make up the score quickly if it fails.

  7. chitter

    “This is not a plus-side risk for other teams, regardless of the numbers.”

    Wow. You don’t really believe that do you?

    Let me ask you this hypothetical question: If someone were to offer me 3-1 odds on the flip of a coin…say their $3000 to my $1000. We’ll assume the coin is legit and if flipped an infinite amount of times would land on 50% heads and 50% tails.

    Now let’s say I take that bet and proceed to lose 3 times in a row and find myself down $3000.

    Was that a bad decision on my part to take the bet since I’m now down $3000?

  8. Sam

    Might have wanted to wait for a more talented team, and later in the season to reveal the onside kick. Dont know if I like using it on a shitty team, that, without the onside, would have kicked their ass anyways.

    Might come in handy this Sun night vs. Atl. But oh well Atl. is a shitty team too and were gonna kick their ass!!

    Go Pack Go!!

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