- Peter Keating, ESPN Senior Writer
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JARED STRUBECK WAS THE BEST AT WHAT he did in all of college football the past four seasons, a threat to change the course of any game. So why have you never heard of him? Because his specialty, the onside kick, is the last resort for losing teams. Or so his coaches believed. Guess what? They're wrong. Yet another exhibit in the case to be made that football coaches are the ultimate in conservative thinking.
From 2005 through 2008, Strubeck and the San Jose State Spartans recovered the most onside kicks in FBS (eight) and had the best recovery rate (61.5%, minimum 10 attempts). "I got to where I was controlling the ball 100%," he says. "We knew where it was going, how high it was going and who was going to run to it."
But the one variable Strubeck couldn't control was how often his coaches rolled the dice, which ended up being just 13 times in four seasons. Around the country, the tactic has been even less popular: College teams have tried just 616 onside kicks since 2004, or about one every 12 games.
So when you flip on your flat-screen to catch your favorite school's opener, you're sure to see new recruits, sparkling helmets ... and stale strategic thinking. Sure, your team might have spent the summer working on flea-flickers and other gadgets. But, as usual, the coach is confusing standard trickery with honest-to-goodness creative thinking. This time of year should be about keeping an open mind and examining new philosophies. The onside kick, when properly used, could be worth one or two wins a year. And yet it's stigmatized to the point that it's the most underutilized play in college football.
We hear you laughing. We know onside kicks reek of desperation, not strength. That they come late in lopsided games, when overmatched teams need to get the ball back and start heaving Hail Marys. We know that teams sometimes recover one or two or even four in a game and still get blown out, as Idaho did last September in a 51-28 loss to Western Michigan. According to ESPN Statistics and Information, FBS teams are just 77-474 in games where they've attempted at least one onside kick in the past five years. The only team to recover more than one onside kick in a win last season was Florida Atlantic, which rode two successful pounces to beat Florida International 57-50 in OT. That ain't exactly Florida-Oklahoma for the national title.
We also realize the recovery of onside kicks is random. Even the top kickers, like Strubeck, say the best they can offer their team is the chance to touch the ball first; nobody can guarantee what happens next.
But conventional wisdom has a way oflimiting progress. To understand why a new approach to onside kicking is in order, let's do a little math. (Seriously, just a little.)
When any drive begins, it has what statisticians call an expected value-the average number of points a team can expect to score, based on previous outcomes for teams with the same field position. (For instance, a team with first and goal at the 1-yard line will score, on average, about six points.) Using this knowledge and a couple of other key pieces of data, it's possible to figure out the costs and benefits of onside kicks. Colleges kick off from the 30, and the average onside try travels 13.9 yards. So, assuming the kicking and receiving teams recover at the same place, the gain from grabbing an onside kick is the expected value of starting a drive at your own 44-yard line (about 2.1 points). The risk is the expected value (about minus-3.0 points) of your foe taking over at the 44. Based purely on that info, you'd have to recover about 60% of kicks for the strategy to pay off.
Seems daunting, right? Well, that's before you consider that the alternative-booting the ball deep-has its own costs. Drives after kickoffs begin, on average, at the returning team's 32-yard line. That's just a 24-yard difference from onside land. And for risking those 24 yards, you get the chance to keep the ball. When you look at all the variables present with both kinds of kicks and factorin the 24-yard difference, you need to recover just 33% of onside tries for the reward to outweigh the risk. FBS teams actually snag 30.7% of onside attempts, which is pretty close.
Keep in mind that all the numbers we've used are averages, and not all teams are created equal. In other words, poor coverage teams that allow foes to start drives closer than the 32 actually have more of a mathematical incentive is the element.
Even more critical is the element of surprise. Chris Meidt, who is now a Redskins assistant, became known for his aggressive play-calling as the head coach at D3 St. Olaf College from 2002 to 2007. "When we were behind late in games, only about 20% of our onside kicks were successful," Meidt says. "But in surprise situations, we recovered about 75% of the time." Meidt's numbers are close to data from the pros: From 1996 to 2006, one in six onside kicks was successful in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
But that breaks down to a 14% rate when teams were losing in the fourth quarter and a whopping 71% at all other times. (The NCAA doesn't record such data, another reason the benefit of onside kicking is a well-kept secret.) Think about that disparity for a moment, then consider all the tactical changes that would be required against a team capable of executing an onside kick at any time. Do you replace beefy blockers with good-hands guys? Keep two returners deep or just one? There's an inherent advantage just in keeping teams guessing.
"If you recover an onside kick, it's just like getting a turnover," says Meidt, who has a math degree and an MBA and who loves to talk about game theory. He adds, "And even if you don't, your opponent has to spend time preparing for and defending against it."
What's more, if a team were to onside kick relentlessly, you'd think eventually it would lose that surprise factor, expose special-teamers to more brutal collisions and succeed less often. But the data argue otherwise. College teams that have tried at least 10 onside kicks since 2004 have recovered them 39% of the time (62-for-158), a higher rate than teams with fewer attempts (127-for-458, or 28%).
So why aren't more teams dribbling the ball off the tee while ahead or to start the third quarter or against USC? For one thing, the game's code, while unwritten, is clear: Rely on strength and speed, not gimmicks. Oregon converted an onside kick in the third quarter of an October 2006 game while leading UCLA 27-6, and the play still draws angry comments on YouTube. (Postscript: The Ducks won by just 10 points). Plus, coaches are deeply risk-averse. Research shows most are biased toward conventional wisdom-they'll routinely punt on fourth down or stick with the PAT conversion chart even when it works against them. Apparently, they will reflexively kick deep,too. "If you do the standard thing and it fails, nothing happens," says Hal Stern, chairman of UC Irvine's statistics department, who has researched football strategy. "If you do something radical and it fails, you get blamed." And so, while the status quo has many champions, the onside kick awaits it own.
Just ask Jared Strubeck. The kicker with the pinpoint accuracy of a Greg Maddux fastball hasn't had a single offer from an NFL team. He is finishing classes and plans to join the California Highway Patrol.
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