'Onside' A Misnomer for Kicks
Short kickoffs, usually referred to as “onside” kicks, are becoming rather common in the National Football League as a way to start a half and catch the receiving team napping.
Used very seldom in years past, the idea has caught on a bit more since the New Orleans Saints were successful with a short kickoff or free kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV last February. Trailing 10-6, at halftime, the Saints recovered the ball on this surprise kick they called their “ambush” after it went about 15 yards. They drove from there to score a touchdown and gain the lead and momentum on the way to their 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
The NFL reports teams are on pace to try more than 14 of these surprise free kicks during this season, quite an increase over the average of 10 a year during the past decade. These are “onside” kicks other than the expected short kickoffs attempted by teams trailing in the last few moments of a half.
As an admitted contrarian, I never used the term “onside kick” in all my decades of covering hundreds of football games — college and pro — and witnessing many of these short kicks. The reason is simple: Any ball that goes 10 yards or more on a kickoff or is first touched by a member of the receiving team is considered a “free ball” and therefore may be recovered by either the receiving team or the kicking team, but may not be advanced by the kicking team.
Thus, if a kickoff goes into the receiving team’s end zone and is bounding around, the kicking team may fall on the ball for a touchdown. But nobody calls that an “onside kick” even though the ball has gone well over 10 yards from the spot of the kick.
When I wrote about a short kickoff I described it as just that — a short kickoff or short free kick.
The reasoning behind my approach to this play goes back 60 years, when I learned the lesson well during a game at the old Polo Grounds between the highly favored original Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants, Oct. 22, 1950.
Following Lou Groza’s second field goal of the game with less than a minute remaining in the first half, Cleveland had a 6-3 lead over the Giants. Then Groza kicked off. The Giants’ rookie halfback, Jim Ostendarp, was the deep return man.
Ostendarp, who played at Bucknell University, 1947-1949, was certainly not afraid to run the ball back against those big Cleveland Browns rushing toward him. After all, he had served in the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, jumping into France on D-Day and fighting on through France and Germany until the 82nd led the victory parade in Berlin.
But in a moment of mistaking free kick rules for the punt rules, Ostendarp stepped aside and let the Browns fall on the football at the Giants’ 1-yard line. Ostendarp, who thought he would not get far trying to return the ball upfield, treated Groza’s kickoff as if it was like a punt from scrimmage during which the kicking team can down the ball but the receiving team then takes over at that point.
However, as explained above, that was actually a “free ball,” and by recovering it, the Browns took possession on the Giants’ 1.
Cleveland went in for a touchdown on the next play and held a 13-3 halftime lead.
Fortunately for Ostendarp and his mates, the Giants rallied behind quarterback Charlie Conerly to win the game 17-13.
Ostendarp played three seasons in pro football before turning to coaching. He became the head football coach at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he served as a highly respected coach and professor of physical education from 1959 through 1991.
I got to know Ostendarp quite well during his coaching days and often reminded him that by his mistake he taught me that even the long kickoff or free kick is just as much an “onside” kick as is a short kick. Ergo, I never use the term “onside” to describe a free kick.
Actually, there are three forms of a free kick. One is the kickoff. Another is the kick following a safety that is usually a punt executed from the kicking team’s 20-yard line barring penalties against the receiving team. It can be a placement or drop kick. And the third free kick is the kick following a fair catch.
It is that third free kick that is most interesting. Unlike the other two free kicks, the one following a fair catch may not be recovered by the kicking team. But the free kick following a fair catch is the only one of the three free kicks in which the kicking team can score a field goal from placement or drop kick in the NFL. Collegiate rules do not permit free kicks following a fair catch.
Under the rules of the NFL, a team that signals for a fair catch and then catches the ball may do one of two things on the next play. It can either run the usual first down play from scrimmage, or it can execute a free kick.
Since a free kick requires the receiving team to remain at least 10 yards downfield from the kicking spot until the ball is kicked, the kicking team has the freedom to run up on a placement kick without the threat of having the kick blocked.
There have been just 21 such free kick field goals attempted so far throughout NFL history. Only five were successful, and only one was the winning margin late in the fourth quarter.
I had the opportunity to cover one of these very rare field goals 46 years ago in a game between the Chicago Bears and the Packers in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Sept. 13, 1964.
It was the great coach Vince Lombardi who came up with the idea as time was running out in the first half.
Trailing 14-3 and backed up inside their own 10, the Bears punted. The Packers signaled for and made a fair catch at their own 48 yard line, 52 yards from the goal posts that were then set on the goal line (NFL goal posts were moved back to the end line in 1974).
Lombardi then informed the officials that Paul Hornung would attempt a free kick, thus forcing the Bears to line up no closer than their own 42. Hornung kicked the ball through the uprights for a 52-yard field goal and the Packers had a 17-3 halftime lead on their way to a 23-12 victory on that opening day of the 1964 NFL season.
Strangely enough, about an hour earlier at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the Eagles’ Sam Baker attempted a 47-yard field goal from a fair catch free kick. Baker came up short as time ran out in the first half of that game with the New York Giants. But the Eagles won 38-7.
Baker’s kick and Hornung’s field goal that same day were the fourth and fifth such free kick field goal attempts following fair catches in NFL history. The first such try was a successful 30-yard field goal by Ken Strong of the New York Giants, Nov. 26, 1933, against the Green Bay Packers at the Polo Grounds as the Giants won 17-6.
The only other players to make field goals on such free kicks were Mac Percival of the Chicago Bears, who booted a 43-yard field goal with 20 seconds left in the game to beat the Packers 13-10, Nov. 3, 1968; Fred Cox of the Minnesota Vikings, Dec. 4, 1966, against the Atlanta Falcons, who won the game 20-13; and Ray Wersching of the San Diego Chargers, Nov. 21, 1976, as the Chargers whipped the Buffalo Bills 34-13.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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