Does it make sense to start overtime with a surprise onside kick?

The stadium scene.
Jan. 7 2011 11:10 AM

So Crazy, It Just Might Work

A pro football conundrum: Does it make sense to start overtime with a surprise onside kick?

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Even so, an opening onside kick is actually a worse percentage play under the new system—the break-even rate has increased to 40 percent. Although it's true that failing to recover isn't as costly as it was before, a conventional deep kickoff has become even more valuable. If the kicking team stops the receiving team deep in its own territory, after all, it will get the ball back in good field position with a great chance to end the game with a chip-shot field goal.

Though the new rules have made overtime onside kicks less advantageous, the numbers still suggest that an onside attempt would be a smart play. Never once has a team opened an NFL overtime game with an onside kick. With the element of surprise, the chance of recovery should be around 60 percent—well above the 40 percent break-even point to make the onside kick a sound decision.

Another intriguing possibility would be an onside kick following a first-possession field goal. I think this would be even more surprising than an onside attempt on the opening kickoff—everyone on the opposing sideline will be deep in thought about what strategy they should use down by three points in overtime, a situation no one has ever seen. In this case, a successful recovery would end the game immediately. And even if the receiving team recovers, the kicking team can still give up a field goal and get the ball back; at that point, the game reverts to old-fashioned sudden-death overtime, where you get the ball and have the advantage.

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Before doing the analysis, I was hoping this would be a slam-dunk easy call. However, the break-even recovery rate works out to be just under 40 percent, about the same as for the start of the new overtime. (The reason it's not more advantageous is that a deep kickoff is also very valuable when up by three points.)

The key in any surprise onside kick is reading the receiving team's tendencies. If they've been dropping back to set up blocks or if they're standing too far back—as the Giants were against the Eagles a few weeks ago—then an onside kick is worth the gamble, so long as you trust the numbers. But would any coach be willing to risk his reputation on such an outlandish maneuver? Well, an onside kick helped win last year's Super Bowl. Maybe it's time for it to win a playoff overtime game.

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Brian Burke is a former Navy fighter pilot and founder of Advanced NFL Stats. He regularly contributes to the New York TimesFifth Down and the Washington Post's Insider.

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