Why Kick Deep From the 50?

A guest post from longtime reader Jeffery Clarke:

One of the effects of the rule change in starting kickoff positions is that it makes onside kicks a considerably better bet. When you add a 15-yard penalty to the equation, teams should consider making an onside kick a fairly standard play.

There have already been four kicks from the 50 yard line this year. None have been onside. Onside kicks need to go at least 10 yards, but historically they have averaged 13 yards. A regular kick from the 50 yard line will almost certainly result in a touchback. According to the WP model, drives that start at the 20 yard line are worth 0.34 expected points. From the kicking team's perspective, that is -0.34 points. If the kicking team fails to recover the onside kick, they can expect their opponent to start the drive at the 37 yard line. That would be worth -1.25 EP. If an onside kick was successful, the kicking team would start at their opponent's 37 yard line. That would be worth 2.84 points. A successful onside kick is worth 3.18 points more than the value of the touchback (2.84 minus -0.34). An unsuccessful onside kick is worth -0.91 points (-1.25 minus -0.34). Clearly, a team should attempt an onside kick if they think they have anywhere near a 50% chance at success.

If the kick is a surprise, the kicking team will have a 60% chance of success. That makes the decision to kick onside worth 1.54 points ((3.18 * 0.6) + (-0.91 * 0.4)). This is a very significant gain. It’s roughly the same as completing a 27 yard pass in the middle of the field. By the same token, the decision not to kick the onside kick could be viewed as costing the team an equivalent amount.

Of course, this relies on the kick being a surprise. Since hardly anyone kicks onside from any field position unless desperate, the first few kicks would almost certainly be surprises. Ultimately, if teams always kicked onside from the 50, onside kicks from the 50 would cease being surprises.

If the kick is expected, the math is different. The receiving team would start to expect them and would act accordingly. Of course, the receiving team must show their hand before the kicking team shows its hand. The primary difference between an expected and a surprise onside kick is personnel. The "hands team" that expects onside kicks is made up of small wide receivers. The normal team is made up of large blockers. A kicking team can simply view the receiving team's personnel and call an audible: onside kick if the normal unit is in place, regular kick if the hands team is in place. Expected onside kicks are successful only 20% of the time. In this case, an onside kick will be worth -0.09 points ((3.18 * 0.2) + (-0.91 * 0.8)). If the kick is expected, the kicking team should not kick onside.

However, it should be noted that when you start at the 50 yard line, even an expected onside kick has very little cost. It equates to about one yard in the middle of the field. The cost of attempting an onside kick from the 50 even when the opponent has its full hands team out in complete expected mode is very trivial.

I would recommend that any team that is behind kick an onside regardless of whether the hands team is in place. The potential gain of following one score with recovering the ball in opposition territory is large enough to outweigh the slight expected point differential. By the same rough logic, a team should kick away if they are already winning and facing the opposition's hands team.

The circumstances that dictate a normal kick to a normal return team are extremely limited. It might seem odd to attempt an onside if you are leading by one point and there is a minute to go. This is actually the correct strategy from the 50 yard line. It’s a similar situation to Belichick's famous fourth down decision. The opportunity to completely end the game right then and there is worth more than the cost of the lost yards.

If teams started maximizing expected value, the game would evolve. One piece of evolution would be that there would never be any reason for the receiving team not to have their hands team on the field after a 15-yard penalty. A regular kick will almost certainly not be returned, so traditional blockers are useless. You are giving the kicking team too great an opportunity. You should expect an onside kick in those circumstances.

I imagine that it will take some time, but eventually coaches will see this logic. I suspect we'll see this situation arise quite frequently. We've already had four kicks from the 50 in the first two weeks. At that pace, we'll have 34 in the regular season. It will be interesting to see who is the first coach to attempt an onside kick. It will also be interesting to see how many are attempted. I have no doubt that the coach that tries it will be viewed as a gambler. It’s not gambling when the odds are on your side. The fact is that if you stop and think about it, all the other coaches are gamblers. Why give up a legitimate opportunity to get the ball deep in opposition territory in exchange for 17 yards of field position? That’s the real gamble and it’s not a smart one.

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11 Responses to “Why Kick Deep From the 50?”

  1. Mike says:

    The more that kick becomes expected, of course, the more trickery you can try to do if you kick deep. I'm not sure if you can really get a punt-style kick from a tee, but if you can really float a ball up so it drops around the 5 yard line, with no blockers, you can pin the offense deep.

  2. Jimmy says:

    Not sure if anybody else saw the Dolphins onside attempt against the Pats during the Monday night game last week but it was fascinating. They lined up with both their kicker and their punter on opposite sides and had them both approach the ball. And they easily could have recovered it.

    It just goes to show the untapped potential of onside kick stragies.

  3. Brian Burke says:

    That's really interesting. I didn't notice. What about training up one of the cover guys to kick onside? That might throw everyone for a loop. I wouldn't even tell the non-kick-side coverage personnel, for even greater deception.

  4. Chase Stuart says:

    Good article, and I agree. But am I missing something here? It seems like even if everyone knows you're attempting an onside kick, it's still the right play.

    -.09 > -.34

    It would seem that as long as you have a 14% chance of recovering the onside kicker, the EPA move is to do just that. Or am I missing something?

  5. zlionsfan says:

    It sounds like one of the things you'd start to see is a change in the type of player you'd keep around for special teams ... more combination hands/blocking players (RB/TE) that you could keep up front to use for both types of kicks.

  6. Jeff Clarke says:


    Thanks. I reread it and I wasn't clear about the numbers. The expected value of kicking onside was actually the net difference in EV from what you would expect with a touchback. So it was actually -.43 < -.34. Kicking onside when expected would be barely the wrong thing to do on an expected points basis. For at least the foreseeable future, I doubt an onside kick would ever be truly expected in this situation.

    Everybody else is right. There are a whole lot of things that the kicking team could do to put some variation into onside kicks. The variation would be a huge advantage for the kicking team. It would be a lot easier to prepare to do them than to prepare to protect against them.

  7. Andy says:

    The real question that we will never really know is if the non-hands guys can be significantly better than 60% if their coach says: "I have a feeling about this one, be super careful about an onside kick before turning around to cover." If its still 60% then teams need to be onside kicking every kickoff until the hands team comes out, and then everything will change. I also am excited for the evolution into more squib like 30 yard onside kicks. I don't really know if its possible to do, but if you could kick the ball in such a way that your team had a chance to get 30 yards down the field as the ball was being fielded, there would be a huge upside with very little downside. Of course we will probably see more injuries if this happens.

  8. ASG says:

    1) As soon as there's a couple of onside kicks, the hands team is going to come out on every kickoff from the 50 since every real kickoff will be a touchback anyway.

    2) We don't know if the onside kick percentages are any different with the new 5 yard run-up rules.

  9. Bigmouth says:

    Awesome analysis, Jeffrey!

    Good point, ASG. The probabilities would almost certainly change the more this inefficiency was exploited.

  10. Ted Unnikumaran says:

    All of your conclusions are based on outdated data - the 60% success rate on surprise kicks and 20% success rate on expected kicks was collected prior to the 2009 season and therefore does not account for the rules on onside kicks that stated "the kicking team cannot have more than five players bunched together".

    Additionally, this year the kicking team must line up 5 yards away from the ball giving them less of a head start and making it even harder to recover onside kicks.

    Not saying that the onside kick in the scenario you mentioned is a bad idea, just that the data you are using is outdated and should not be used anymore

  11. Mr. McCabe says:

    Another option for a 50-yard-line kickoff is to kick the ball high but short of the end zone. A high kick that landed at, say, the 30 would still give the kicking team a chance at a recovery, but with 10 or so extra yards of field position in case it didn't work. And if the kick is caught by the receiving team, the return yardage should be minimal because 1) it's not being caught by the normal returner and 2) the coverage should be much better (more like a punt).

    I have long wondered what would happen if a kicker effectively lobbed the ball towards an empty spot on the field. The kicking team knows where it's going, while the receiving team has to read and react. And if the ball hits the ground, it's not going to bounce predictably—and randomness helps the kicking team.

    But I think we may have to wait for college to move their kick-off markers, because the NFL is so excessively resistant to change/innovation.

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