The end of last Sunday’s game between the Bills and Jaguars was rather anticlimactic.
For the home team, that was a good thing. Bills receivers Zay Jones easily recovered an onside kick attempt by Jacksonville’s Josh Lambo, allowing his team to run out the clock in a 24-21 win. The play was forgettable — as nearly every onside kick attempt has become in the NFL.
The success rate on onside kicks this season has been abysmal — with kicking teams recovering just three times on 37 attempts (8 percent). Compare that to last year’s success rate, which was 23 percent, and the last decade’s average of about 15 percent, and it’s clear the onside kick is on the verge of extinction.
The biggest reason appears to be rules changes implemented to make kickoffs a safer play.
“It’s tough, but not surprising with the rules changes,” Bills special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman said. “As long as the hands team is aligned right, now you’re strictly at the mercy of the bounce. If they don’t field it cleanly, you’ve got a chance. If they field it cleanly, it’s really tough.”
Under the new rules, returning teams now must have at least eight players in a 15-yard “setup zone” that stretches from the opposing team’s 45-yard line to their own 40-yard line. That has meant “surprise” onside kicks have less of a chance to be recovered because the returning team has more players close to the ball.
According to Optimum Scouting, kicking teams recovered 22 of 85 onside kicks (26 percent) in the first three quarters of games since 2009 (including playoffs), entering this season. Predictably, the success rate in the fourth quarter and overtime of games from 2009 to the start of this season is much less, 37 of 460 (8 percent), because receiving teams know it’s coming and line up to recover it.
The second rule change is that other 10 players on the kicking team must line up 1 yard off the line of scrimmage, at the 34-yard line, and can’t get a running start.
The third rule change is that teams can no longer overload one side of the field. There must be five players on each side of the kicker — two inside the hashmarks, two outside and one rover.
“With the stagnant start, that's the biggest thing,” Crossman said. “With the predetermined alignments, there's very little wiggle room of trying to get numbers. There's some things that you're trying to do, but really, it’s based on two things, the alignment and then the bounce. You're seeing more teams just put the ball on the ground, I think, than the high bounce just because you don't have the space to be able to get there in time, where you used to get there with the running start.”
The Bills have attempted two onside kicks this year, against the Chargers in Week 2 and the Bears in Week 9. Both attempts were unsuccessful, and neither was particularly close to being recovered. Against the Chargers, kicker Stephen Hauschka got a nice high bounce, but the ball went right to Los Angeles’ Keenan Allen, who fielded it cleanly. Against the Bears, Hauschka kicked it to the right side of the formation, but didn’t get a good hop, leading to Chicago’s Anthony Miller making an easy recovery.
“You can work on it and try to get the ball to bounce a certain way, but it's still just a percentage thing,” Hauschka said. “The ball’s not always going to do the same thing in the game. I don't think that's changed at all. That's been the same since physics was invented 13 billion years ago.”
So does that mean it’s up to the football gods?
“It’s always up to them,” Hauschka said.
With five weeks left in the season, the NFL is on pace for the fewest onside recoveries (four) since 2009, when kicking teams went 6 for 41. Only the Giants (1 for 4), Lions (1 for 3) and Jaguars (1 for 2) have had a successful onside kick this year, according to the Associated Press.
“In previous years, you could load one side and try to create a mismatch,” said Bills receiver Andre Holmes, one of the team’s core special-teams players. “Moving people while the kicker is going, trying to get the receiving team to maybe align too much to one side and kicking it to the other side. Now you can't really do that now. A lot of coaches are trying to figure out what's the right way to do it. Everyone thought the new kickoff rules, the return part of the game was going to be hard to get used to, but that was probably the easiest part. The onside kick, which I'm sure no one thought about, is the hardest part.”
Crossman understands the rules changes, even if they have made his job more difficult.
“With the idea of player safety, because it was a high-impact play, I'm fine with it,” he said. “I don't like it — there's a lot of things that I don't like that they've changed — sort of like the PAT and field-goal block, you're so limited now in what you can do and who and how you can rush. Very similar play. Seventeen years ago, when I came into this league, you could do a lot of stuff and you could make a lot of plays there. Now you're a little bit more reduced in what you can do. You're seeing the same thing on the onside kick.”
That has undoubtedly sapped the game of some of its excitement.
“Major League Baseball, if you're batting .300, you can possibly go to the Hall of Fame. Give me .300 in onside kicks and it is going to be more exciting,” Crossman said. “You're going to feel good about it. It's like anything, we've got to try to come up with something. It's based on a lot of different things. Hopefully when we get that opportunity, we change that percentage. Or when we need to recover it, we can make it go even lower.”
Another issue is the lack of practice time. Given the high-impact nature of the play, teams can’t simply run their players into each other at full speed.
“It's hard, because it's a really physical play, with physical blocks. It's really a dangerous play, so you can't really practice it that often,” Holmes said. “There's a risk of injury every single time. … The practice comes in the games, really.”
On the flip side, the Bills have been on the receiving side of two onside attempts — in Week 3 against the Vikings and last Sunday. Minnesota’s try by kicker Dan Bailey went out of bounds, while Jones made the recovery to wrap up the win against Jacksonville.
“It doesn't become a pressure situation until you're actually in it and understand that, ‘OK, we need to get this ball back.’ Coach Crossman gets us prepared every single week,” Jones said. “I know some of the bigger guys are going to protect. My job specifically there is to secure the football. … It was a game-closing play for us. Not just to talk about me, but it was a clutch play by our hands unit.”
Other members of the hands teams include Patrick DiMarco, Logan Thomas, Lorenzo Alexander, Jason Croom, Deonte Thompson and Rafael Bush along the front line. Jones is joined behind them by safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, along with Holmes.
“I think it's dependable, smart, and then it's a little bit about what you're anticipating getting from the opposition,” Crossman said of what he looks for with members of the hands unit. “You've got to find a good mix of guys that have both dependability and are physical enough to block, to get in front of somebody, but if the ball comes to them, you feel secure enough in them handling it.”
The Bills have a tryout of sorts to identify their hands team during training camp.
“Before practices, we're kicking all kinds of onside kicks to guys just to get a feel on what they can do,” Crossman said. “Some guys can play better on the left side than the right side, so there's a lot of things involved.”
Earlier in his career with the Falcons, DiMarco recalled lining up for about 19 or 20 different onside kick formations from the opposing team during one season.
“I think we gave up one, which was really good, especially with all the different looks they used to be able to do,” he said. “I've seen about every different look possible, with these new rules and it definitely puts the return team at an advantage.”
That has left the Bills — and every other team – scrambling for a new approach.
“Everyone is looking at everyone else’s onside kick and saying, ‘That might work for us,’ ” Holmes said.
“There's different gadgets that we've worked on as a team, looks that we think are favorable for us,” DiMarco added. “We watch a good bit of them every week. Hopefully we don't have to use them, but I think we have a few gadgets that can get us the ball back if we need it.”