In gridiron football, an onside kick is a kickoff (or a free kick) deliberately kicked short. In most kickoffs, the kicking team concedes possession of the ball and tries to kick it as far as possible from its own goal. In an onside kick, the kicking team kicks short in hopes of regaining possession of the ball before the receiving team can control it.
The onside kick is a low-percentage play, generally justified only late in a game when the kicking team is trailing in the score. However, its chances of success increase when the returning team does not expect it.
Origin of the term and use in Canadian football
Gridiron football originates in rugby football, and so does the onside kick. In rugby, while the forward pass is prohibited, a team in possession may legally kick the ball downfield and recapture possession, provided that the receiver of the kick was onside when the kick was made (i.e., abreast with or behind the kicker.)
This form of onside kick is still legal in Canadian football, just as in rugby. A player of the kicking team (at any kick, not just a free kick) who is "onside" may recover the ball and retain possession for his team. This includes the kicker himself and anyone else behind the ball at the time it was kicked, other than the holder for a place kick. The form of onside kick available at a free kick in American football (see below) is also available in Canadian football for a kickoff as well; however, the kick may well be chipped high instead of bounced, because the players of the receiving team have no particular first right to the ball as in American football (due to the fair catch rule); both sides may play the ball equally, even in the air.
Modern American football usage
Starting in 1923, the following additional constraints in most forms of American football are relevant to the onside kick:
- The kick must be a free kick (a kickoff, or free kick after a safety, but not the rare fair catch kick).
- The kick must cross the receiving team's restraining line (normally 10 yards in front of the kicking team's line), unless the receiving team touches the ball before that line.
- The kicking team may only recover and retain possession of the kicked ball, but not advance it.
- The kicking team must not interfere with an attempt by a player of the receiving side to catch the ball on the fly.
"Onside" is now a misnomer in American football; an onside kick is simply one that is kicked in a particular way to give the kicking team the best chance of regaining possession — typically in a diagonal direction and as close to the advancing players from the kicking team as possible.
The kicking team generally attempts to make the ball bounce early (to remove the possibility of being charged with interfering with a catch) and be available around 20 yards in front of the spot of the kick. One technique, useful especially on a hard or artificial surface, is to kick the ball in a way that it spins end-over-end near the ground and makes a sudden bounce high in the air. The oblong shape of an American football makes it bounce unpredictably, increasing the possibility that the receiving team will muff the catch. An alternative is to kick the ball with a great deal of force directly at an opposing player. If the ball touches the player, but he cannot secure it, it becomes live regardless of whether it has traveled 10 yards.
When the receiving team expects an onside kick, it often substitutes a "hands team" of players skilled at catching or otherwise securing the ball.
Traditionally, the onside kick had its own formation, in which the other ten players of the kicking team would line up on one side (left or right) of the kicker, in an effort to get as many people as possible into one area of the field. This is still popular in high school football; however, the NCAA (and later the NFL) now require that at least four players line up on each side of the kicker. To combat this, some teams (including the Buffalo Bills, who pioneered this strategy) developed a "cluster formation" in which all of the players line up behind and immediately next to the kicker in what is effectively a moving huddle. The NFL eventually banned this, too, with a 2009 rule change that states that "the kicking team cannot have more than five players bunched together"; the rule change has been considered a gratuitous targeting of Bills special teams coach Bobby April, as the ostensible reason for the ban (injury risk) had negligible evidence to support it.
An onside kick is usually a desperation technique used when the kicking team trails in the score with little time left in the game, in order to regain the ball and score again. The trade-off is that, in the usual case that the receiving team does get possession of the ball, it will have better field position and will need to advance the ball fewer yards in order to score. However, in the desperation situation, initial field position becomes less relevant, as the receiving team may focus on running the clock out and ending the game.
Occasionally, football coaches attempt surprise onside kicks to catch their opponent's players off guard and without the "hands team" on the field. For instance, in Super Bowl XXX, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher called an onside kick early in the fourth quarter when trailing 20-10, which was successfully recovered. In Super Bowl XLIV, the New Orleans Saints executed an onside kickoff to start the second half and successfully converted the possession into a touchdown.
An onside kick is considered successful if the kicking team regains the ball. Between 2001 and 2010, surprise onside kicks were successful 60% of the time, while expected onside kicks were successful less than 20% of the time. Another study of just the 2005 and 2006 seasons also found similar disparities depending on whether the defense expects an onside kick. Accordingly, some analysts have suggested that the surprise onside kick is underutilized. In 2014, the Indianapolis Colts routinely used the onside kick, with three in the first 6 games of the season, often at the start of the game. Each of these was successful.
Offside "onside" kicks
There have been versions of American football where the kicking team could recover the ball once it hit the ground, regardless of onside or offside, and not only for free kicks. Any such kick recovered by the kicking team is often referred to as an "onside kick," even if the recovering player was in front of the kicker at the time of the kick (and thus, according to the original definition, offside.) Saint Louis University coach Eddie Cochems described this play after the 1906 season:
- "Instead of keeping the ball in the air it should be kicked to the ground as soon as the case will permit, since the moment it touches, the whole team is on-side. The longer the kicker can delay kicking the further down the field the team can get to either recover the ball themselves or form interference for the player who is supposed to recover."
In these early years and into the 1920s, all players of the kicking team except the kicker were permitted to recover the ball once it hit the ground beyond the neutral zone. Later, the rules were modified to require it be at least 20 yards downfield.
The idea of the early 20th century, XFL, and Arena rules allowing kicking side recovery on grounded balls was generally to force the receiving team to play the ball, encourage quick (i.e. surprise) kicking, and thereby loosen the defense. However, kicks have rarely been employed as offensive tactics even when these rules were present; the forward pass remains the more effective tactic to loosen and surprise the defense.