Ravens kicker Justin Tucker tries an onside kick against the Chargers during a playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The onside kick long has been one of the NFL’s more captivating plays. It has been the last vestige of hope countless times for a team attempting to mount a late-game comeback by securing one final possession. It also has provided a number of notable mid-game surprises, such as when the New Orleans Saints used one to great effect during their Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts nine years ago.

But the play has more or less been taken out of the NFL as one side effect of rules put in place this season to make kickoffs safer. Simply put, it has become next to impossible for the kicking team to recover an onside kick.

So the question becomes: How much does that matter?

The early indications have been that the rules, enacted after the NFL’s competition committee received offseason input from special teams coaches, are accomplishing the primary goal of the revamping of the play, which is to reduce the number of concussions suffered by players on kickoffs.

When NFL officials and competition committee members evaluate the success of the kickoff rules in Year 1, then, they will have to weigh the injury data with competitive considerations. If the new rules indeed have managed to curb concussions on kickoffs and make the play safer, will it matter that the onside kick is more or less being taken out of the game? Will that lead to further tweaking of the rules? Or if onside kicks can’t be fixed with further tweaking, is that enough to declare the rules a failure and move on to contemplating prospective alternatives to the kickoff?

For now, it’s not clear. League leaders declined to say publicly what they think about the decline in onside-kick success this season or to specify what, if anything, they plan to do in reaction. The NFL, after announcing in October that there had been zero concussions suffered by players on kickoffs during the preseason, is awaiting the final injury data for the 2018 regular season. The work of the competition committee intensifies next month as it begins to consider potential rule-change proposals for next season.

Season No. of onside kicks No. recovered by kicking team Pct.
2017 60 13 21.7
2018 53 4 7.5

But the numbers are striking. According to figures provided to the league by Elias, kicking teams recovered only four of 53 onside kicks this season, or 7.5 percent. That’s after they recovered 13 of 60 onside kicks last season, or 21.7 percent, under the previous rules.

One person familiar with the league’s inner workings said there is a distinction to be made between expected onside kicks, those that come at the end of games with the kicking team trailing, and surprise onside kicks, such as the Saints' Super Bowl masterpiece. The success rate of expected onside kicks has always been low and hasn’t changed all that much under the new kickoff rules, the person said.

“So this is really a conversation about the success rate of surprise onside kicks,” the person said, adding that rate was historically low this season but pointing out that such plays occur infrequently during a season.

No matter how it’s broken down, nobody was recovering many onside kicks, whether expected or surprise, this season. And competition committee members previously have acknowledged the importance of onside kicks to the sport.

“It’s exciting,” Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy, a member of the committee, said during the meetings in May in New York at which the rules were discussed with special teams coaches. “One of the best things about our game is that you can catch up with the onside kick. To completely lose some of those things would be a big change to the game. But when you’re staring at injury data, you’ve got to do something.”

The reasons for the lack of success experienced by teams with onside kicks this season seem clear. Under the rules, players on the kicking team no longer can get a running start before the ball is kicked. The kicking team also is prohibited from overloading one side of the field by putting most of its players on that side of the formation. Those provisions contribute to making kickoffs safer. But they also reduce the level of the chaos that once existed for the players on the receiving team tasked with gathering in the loose ball on an onside kick amid collisions and with so many bodies flying around.

Some teams might be simply giving up on onside kicks. The Dallas Cowboys opted against an onside kick and instead kicked off deep Saturday night in Los Angeles when trailing the Rams, 30-22, with just over two minutes to play. The Cowboys, with three timeouts remaining and the two-minute warning ahead, trusted their defense to force a Rams punt.

But would they have taken a different approach if an onside kick was a better option these days? That would have given them two chances: recovering the onside kick or, if that failed, forcing a three-plays-and-out punt. As it turned out, the Rams got two first downs, ran out the clock and advanced to this Sunday’s NFC title game at New Orleans.

One suggested future alternative to the kickoff simulates the onside kick by giving the “kicking” team possession of the ball in a fourth-and-15 situation. The team can either punt the ball away to its opponent or attempt to retain possession with a fourth-down conversion. But that seems too gimmicky to some traditionalists, and the competition committee has expressed a preference to retain the kickoff if possible.

“One thing we have really tried to do is keep working with the framers, the way they framed the game, and then make adjustments, as opposed to saying we’re going to start over,” Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the committee’s chairman, said at an October owners’ meeting in New York. “So I think the kickoff’s been a part of our game. Special teams have been an integral part of our game. And we need to keep them in the game if we can.”

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