Kickoffs are an integral part of any football game. It marks the start of the game, the start of the second half, and a change of possession after a team scores. With that said, not every kickoff ends with the other team receiving the ball. With an onside kick, things are a little different.
So, what is an onside kick in football?
An onside kick is a high-risk, high-reward kickoff where the kicking team attempts to recover the kick by kicking the ball a short distance. As long as the ball passes the 10-yard restraining line, the kicking team can retain possession if they’re the first team to recover the ball.
Being a high-risk, high-reward situation, an onside kick is one of the rarer occurrences in a football game. It’s largely utilized as a desperation attempt near the end of a game when the kicking team is losing. When successful, it can help the kicking team mount an exciting comeback.
Despite being an exciting play to watch, many football fans are confused by the rules regarding the onside kick. Not only are the rules specific and strict, but they’ve changed mightily over the years to allow for a safer and fair environment. Don’t worry, we’ll break it all down for you.
NFL Onside Kick Rules
Much like any other kickoff, there are specific rules both teams must follow during an onside kick. These rules are designed to reduce the number of injuries sustained during an onside kick, but also make it fair for both sides. Onside kicks shouldn’t be too easy or too hard.
The first known successful onside kick was during a game between Vanderbilt and Georgia back in 1921 — both teams were members of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Ever since then, the onside kick has been a mainstay in football at all levels – NFL, NCAA, and more.
Here are some of the main rules that have stuck around for nearly 100 years:
- Onside kicks can only be attempted on free kicks (kickoffs and safety kicks, but not on fair catch kicks or field goals).
- The ball must cross the restraining line (10 yards from the point of the kick) before the kicking team can touch and recover the ball. If they do, it’s a 5-yard penalty and re-kick. If it happens a second time, the receiving team gains possession at the dead-ball spot.
- If the receiving team touches the ball before crossing the restraining line, it’s a live ball and the kicking team can recover it.
- The kicking team can recover the ball, but they can’t advance the ball. They’re given possession wherever the ball is recovered.
- The kicking team can’t interfere with a receiving team player’s attempt to catch the ball.
Similar to any other kickoff, the kicking team can’t cross the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked. If caught offside, the kicking team is given a five-yard penalty and do the kick over. The five yards either move the kicking team back or are given to the receiving team after kickoff.
It’s also important to note that the kicking team doesn’t need to make their intentions known when attempting an onside kick. Although it’s usually obvious, given the game situation and how the kicking team is lined up, there are some instances of surprise onside kicks — it’s just rare.
Onside Kick Rule Changes
As discussed above, the onside kick has been around since 1921 and the rules have been clear since 1923. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect these rule changes to stay in place for 100 years without any changes being made — especially considering how often the NFL changes rules.
There have been several instances where the rules for an onside kick have been altered over the past decade or so. For example, the traditional onside kick formation saw all 10 non-kickers line up on one side of the kicker, depending on where the ball was being kicked.
Eventually, the NFL required a minimum of four players on each side of the kicker, making it harder to stack players up. Some of the more notable changes came in 2009, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. Below, we’re going to talk about those changes in more depth.
The onside kick that we know today is far different from the onside kick we knew 10+ years ago and a lot of that has to do with the rule change in 2009. Since teams needed at least four players on each side of the kicker, they were adamant to find a way to stack the odds in their favor.
The Buffalo Bills were one team to successfully find a way around it. They had five players line up on each side of the kicker but clustered them up in a huddle formation directly behind the kicker. Buffalo Bills’ Special Teams Coordinator, Bobby April, called it an avalanche formation.
The team was very successful at making this work, but the NFL wasn’t on board with it due to the risk of injury — which is what they were trying to avoid with the original rule change. To combat this avalanche formation, the NFL created another rule change that doubled down.
The new change stated that the kicking team can’t have more than five players bunched together in one spot. This forced teams to spread their players out along the line of scrimmage, while still requiring a minimum of four players on each side of the kicker.
For a while, the NFL made very little change to their onside kick rules, but that started drastically changing in 2018 and beyond — paving the way for several significant rule changes in the coming years. In fact, 2018 welcomed several different rule changes on both sides of the ball.
The first rule change was directed towards the receiving team. It stated that the receiving team must have a minimum of eight players in the setup zone — both on normal kickoffs and onside kicks. The setup zone is the area between 10 and 25 yards of the kickoff spot.
Before this rule, most teams only had six players in the setup zone, making it easy for the kicking team to recover since they were sending 10 players — 11 including the kicker — toward the ball. With more players in the setup area, the receiving team had more coverage up close.
The second rule change was directed towards the kicking team. It stated that the kicking team was no longer allowed a running start before the ball is kicked. Instead, all 10 non-kickers must be within one yard of the line of scrimmage and can’t start running until the ball is kicked.
The running start was crucial to the onside kick because it allowed the non-kickers to be near full speed before the ball was kicked. Without the running start, it takes the kicking team more time to get to the ball — tipping things in the receiving team’s favor.
The third rule change in 2018 is three rules in one. First, the kicking team needs five players on each side of the kicker — which used to be a minimum of four. Second, the kicking team needs at least two players between the numbers and the hash marks. Third, the kicking team needs at least two players outside the numbers.
This forces the kicking team to spread their players out even more than they were before. Much like the rule changes above, they made it much more difficult for the kicking team to recover the ball and tipped things in favor of the receiving team — though it did help reduce the risk of injury.
Every year, NFL teams and their owners are given the chance to propose potential rule changes that are eventually voted on by the league. In 2019, the NFL and its owners had an opportunity to change the way we view onside kicks forever with a proposal sent in by the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos proposed an alternative to the onside kick. It would’ve allowed teams that were trailing in the fourth quarter an opportunity to regain possession by converting a fourth-and-15 offensive play from their own 35-yard line. Teams would only get one chance at this per game.
If they convert the play, they maintain possession at the spot of the ball. If unsuccessful, the defense would gain possession at the spot of the ball. It’s very similar to what the Alliance of American Football allows, though their rule is a little different and it’s utilized more often.
Despite the Competition Committee voting 7-1 in favor of the NFL rule change proposed by the Denver Broncos, the NFL Owners voted it down and the rule was never adopted in the NFL. Instead, the onside kick saw no change and receiving teams still had a large advantage.
In 2020, some NFL owners were ready to double down on the fourth-and-15 alternative that was attempted in 2019. This time, it was the Philadelphia Eagles looking to get a proposal passed that would give teams a better chance at regaining possession after scoring in a tight game.
Instead of trying to pass the same proposal, the Eagles decided to tweak it a little — in hopes of gaining more support this time around. Instead of the fourth-and-15 play starting at the kicking team’s 35-yard line, they proposed starting the play at the 25-yard line.
Much like the original proposal, the ‘kicking team’ would regain possession if successful, but it would be a turnover on downs if unsuccessful. With the ball at the 25-yard line, the defense would gain possession much closer to the end zone if the ‘kicking team’ was unsuccessful.
Penalties would be in effect during the scrimmage play. If the defense is assessed a penalty that results in an automatic first down, the play is automatically successful. If the offense were assessed a penalty, they would re-do the scrimmage play at the new line of scrimmage.
In addition to that, teams wouldn’t be able to change their decision unless they called a timeout before snapping the ball for the scrimmage play. Once the ball is snapped, the ‘kicking team’ has to continue attempting the play, even if penalties mark them backward.
Unfortunately, the 2020 proposal was once again voted down by NFL owners — though it was clear that the league was gaining support for this proposal. The fourth-and-15 play was given a test run in the 2020 NFL Pro Bowl game.
Despite the fourth-and-15 play garnering a lot of attention and onside kicks continuing to favor the receiving team, the NFL hadn’t initiated any rule changes to the onside kick in several years. That all changed in 2021 when the NFL attempted to make it easier for the kicking team.
The rule change that was adopted in 2021 stated that the receiving team couldn’t have more than nine players in the setup zone — between 10 and 25 yards from the kickoff spot. In the recent past, 87% of teams had 10 players in the setup area and 13% of teams had 11 players.
With fewer players in the setup area, the kicking team had a one-man — and sometimes two-man — advantage over the receiving team, so long as they got there fast enough. It was certainly a step in the right direction, but it was still difficult for the kicking team due to past rule changes.
In addition to that rule change, the Philadelphia Eagles yet again attempted their fourth-and-15 onside kick alternative proposal. The major tweak this time around was changing the scrimmage play to an untimed down — instead of following the normal NFL timing rules.
Once again, the proposal was tabled by NFL owners before a vote was counted. It’s still possible we see the proposal accepted in the future, but when that could happen is a mystery.
How to Kick an Onside Kick
Successfully recovering an onside kick is extremely difficult, especially considering all the rule changes being implemented in the last few years. To combat this, kickers and special teams coordinators have implemented different methods and techniques when kicking an onside kick.
Three of the more popular methods include the high-bounce kick, the drive kick, and the drag kick. The non-kickers respond differently depending on the type of onside kick used. Don’t worry, we’re going to detail how to kick each one and why they’re important to know for kickers.
Also known as a lob kick, the high-bounce kick is one of the most common onside kick methods used today. It’s when the kicker aims the ball towards the sideline and kicks it in a way where the ball hits the ground immediately and bounces high in the air for at least 10 yards.
While this allows the coverage team an opportunity to catch the ball in the air before it hits the ground again, it also gives the receiving team that same opportunity, if they’re quick enough, since the ball has already hit the ground once — so long as it travels past the restraining line.
To initiate the high-bounce kick, the kicker places the football on the tee the same way they normally do, but they position the tee backward. They strike the upper-third of the football with the inside tip of their toe. As they strike, the ball hits the ground and bounces high in the air.
The most difficult part of this method is aiming. It works best if they aim toward the sideline, but they also have to ensure it doesn’t go out of bounds — while also making sure it travels far enough. Kickers have a lot to think about, but it’s an excellent method when performed correctly.
The drive kick is generally performed when the receiving team knows the onside kick is coming. It utilizes a special tee designed exclusively for this kick by allowing the ball to sit upright with the tip on the ground. When setting the ball, they lean it back further than they normally would.
When kicking a drive kick, the idea is to angle it toward the sideline and hit in a way where the tip of the ball quickly hits the ground. The more force you put into the kick, the more erratic it will skip as it continually hits the ground. The ball travels rather fast, but the skip is unpredictable.
The unpredictability of the skip is what’s most important here. It not only gives the kicking team a chance to position themselves upfield, but it makes it hard for the receiving team to guess where the ball ends up. As long as the kicking team is positioned correctly, they have a chance.
Also known as a dribble kick, the drag kick is generally performed as a surprise onside kick when the receiving team is expecting a normal kickoff. The ball is placed on the tee and the kicker lines up as he normally would for a kickoff, effectively fooling the receiving team.
The kicking team knows to use this method when they see the receiving team vacating their position and preparing to block for the kickoff — opposed to preparing to recover. By throwing the receiving team off, they catch them off-guard and give themselves a good chance at recovering.
To do this onside kick correctly, the kicker steps up to the football like normal. At the last moment, the kicker drags his foot across the top of the football instead of driving it like a normal kickoff. This causes the ball to bounce and skip alongside the kicker as he runs with it.
What makes this method different is the kicker is normally responsible for recovering the ball. He follows the ball as it bounces and waits for it to travel 10 yards. When it does, he attempts to recover it before another player can get there.
Onside Kick Recovery Rate
The data and statistics surrounding onside kicks show an extreme struggle for the kicking team, which is a large reason why so many NFL owners are calling for significant change. It used to be much easier for the kicking team, but the recent rule changes have made it near-impossible.
From 2011-2017, the kicking team attempted an average of 9.4 onside kicks per year in the first three quarters of the game (surprise kicks), as well as 53.9 onside kicks per year (expected kicks) in the fourth quarter. They were successful on 45.5% of onside kicks in the first three quarters and 10.3% of onside kicks in the final quarter.
From 2018-present, there has been an average of 4.5 onside kicks per year in the first three quarters and 58.5 in the fourth quarter — not much different than the past. Unfortunately, they were only successful 16.7% of the time in the first three quarters and 8.4% of the time in the fourth.
Here’s a quick look at how successful teams have been the past few years in the NFL:
|Year||Total Attempts||Successful Attempts||Percentage|
As you can see, the 21% success rate in 2017-2018 was all-but demolished after the string of rule changes following the season. The rate started recovering during the 2019-2020 season, increasing from 6% to 13%, but dipped to a historic low of 4% in the 2020-2021 season.
Best Players at Kicking Onside Kicks
Throughout history, there have been several kickers with a high success rate when attempting an onside kick. Of course, those success rates are much harder to find in today’s game with the rule changes that have taken place in the past few years — especially in 2018.
You also need to consider the number of factors involved in a successful kick. Not only does the kicker need to have the right touch and technique, but the non-kickers need to do their job correctly and be in the right position. Even more, there’s a level of luck and chance involved.
Here are some of the most successful onside kickers in history, between 1991-2018:
|Al Del Greco||19||7||37%|
In addition to those listed above, there are several others worth mentioning — such as Connor Barth (2/11), Stephen Gostkowski (3/9), Matt Stover (4/15), Jay Feely (6/27), and Ryan Longwell (7/27). Robbie Gould and Kai Forbath could also land on that all-time list.
More recently, Younghoe Koo (Atlanta Falcons) has made a name for himself as one of the best onside kickers in today’s NFL. He is 3/5 with onside kicks from 2019-2021 with Ka’imi Fairbairn (Houston Texans) is 2/3. These two kickers put the ball in good positions for the rest of the special teams unit.
Are Onside Kicks Dangerous?
With the recent rule changes over the past few years, onside kicks — and kickoffs in general — are considerably less dangerous than they used to be in the NFL. For example, the 2018 rule changes brought a 35% decrease in concussions on all kickoffs — including a decrease on onside kicks.
The biggest reason concussions are less likely is due to the kicking team not being allowed to run before the kick. Unfortunately, the NFL hasn’t found a way to make onside kicks easier for the kicking team without making them more dangerous on both sides of the ball.
This is why the NFL and its owners are constantly searching for a solution every offseason. They’ll continue to go back and forth until a solution is found, but when that happens is unknown at this time.