The Death of Onside Kicks: Why NFL Rule Changes May Have Inadvertently Eliminated Them

by Justis Mosqueda

There’s no other way to spin it: Two major rule changes in the NFL will dissuade onside kicks for the time being.

First, the return team now must line up with at least eight players within the opposition’s 45-yard-line and their 40-yard-line. The NFL calls this 15-yard range the “setup zone,” which begins at the point where the kicking team can legally recover the football without it being previously touched by the return team.

Prior to this year, there was no “setup zone” player minimum for return teams. Because there was no minimum, return teams often had fewer than eight players in the “setup zone” on standard kickoffs.

To show you what will be the differences between 2017 and 2018 kickoffs in the NFL, we’re going to use examples of the Baltimore Ravens’ kickoff unit. Baltimore played in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game and their head coach John Harbaugh famously was a special teams coordinator from 1988 to 2007, making them an easy highlight. Below is a photo of the Ravens’ final kickoff of the 2017 season:

The blue line to green line on the graphic is where the NFL now mandates eight kick-returning bodies. Traditionally, as seen above, return teams not expecting an onside kick attempt would only have six or so bodies within range to realistically recover a surprise onside kick.

In the first three quarters of NFL games since 2009 (including playoffs), kicking teams recovered 22 of 85 onside kicks (25.9 percent.) In the fourth quarter and in overtime over that same span, kicking teams only recovered 37 of 460 onside kicks (8.0 percent.) One of the reasons why onside kicks in the first three quarters of games have traditionally had three times the success rate of fourth quarter and overtime onside kick attempts is the fact that teams were more likely to go light in the “setup zone,” leaving an opportunity to be taken advantage of.

Below is a photo of the Baltimore Ravens’ first kickoff in the Hall of Fame game:

As you can see, the mandated eight “setup zone” bodies tighten up windows for even a surprise onside kick. Make no doubt of this: The NFL’s new rule applied to the “setup zone” will drastically impact the effectiveness of surprise onside kick attempts. With two-fifths of successful onside kicks coming outside of the fourth quarter and overtime since 2009, it’s easy to predict, for this reason alone, that the volume of successful onside kicks will be drastically drop in 2018.

The second rule change which will limit the frequency of onside kicks is the fact that the kicking team will no longer be afforded a running start. Below, again, is the photo of the Ravens’ final kickoff of 2017:

The yellow line (35-yard-line) highlights where the ball is kicked from and the red line (30-yard-line) is a marker of where the rest of the kickoff team began their sprint. With this photo frozen just before Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker boots the ball to Cincinnati, it’s clear that everyone took advantage of their running start.

In 2018, the 10 non-kickers on the kickoff team must line up within a yard of the ball (34-yard-line.) Note how the 2018 Ravens, pre-play, are already tighter to the ball, while flat-footed, than the 2017 Ravens with the running start from five yards out:

This rule, too, will likely dissuade teams from kicking onside, as the kicking team has been forced to trade off a running start, when most players were within two yards of the ball at the kick, for a stationary position a yard off the ball during the kick. Under the NFL’s rules, the ball must travel 10 yards before the kicking team can attempt to recover it (unless the returning team touches the ball before the ball gets 10 yards of depth.) In the context of that, a running start matters a lot more lining up on the ball, which is why kickoff teams elected to use running starts when they were given the freedom to.

The only real data point we have for an onside kick situation under 2018 rules was at the end of the Hall of Fame Game, when the Chicago Bears’ reserves, in a meaningless game, were down a point with 2:44 left on the clock. With 10 players lined up a yard off the ball and 10 Ravens in the “setup zone,” the Bears chose to just boot the kick deep.

In previous years, maybe that is an onside kick attempt. The questions now are 1) Will onside kicks even have an eight percent success rate under 2018 rules? and 2) How desperate teams will need to be to attempt them under these rules? (Eight percent being the rate that NFL teams successfully recovered onside kicks at in the fourth quarter and in overtime when kicking teams had the benefit of a running start.)

When Optimum Scouting discussed the future of onside kicks with a former NFL special teams coordinator, the future of the play did not seem optimistic. When we asked him if the idea of executing the play is dead, he told us “It would be a heck of a lot more difficult, that’s for sure.” Overall, it was his belief that kickoffs, citing concern for both player health and fan support, need to go the way of the dodo. “The best thing to do, at the end of the day, is eliminate the thing all together. It’s a major change and all that, but it’s the right thing to do.”