Tramel: As Dallas Cowboys just showed us, onside kicks aren't dead yet
Bobby Proctor sidled up to Uwe von Schamann with barely a minute left in the 1977 Oklahoma-Ohio State game. Proctor, Barry Switzer’s defensive backfield coach, loosely worked with the OU kicking game.
Proctor asked von Schamann where he wanted to kick; von Schamann surveyed the Buckeye return team and suggested, “How about that guy, second from the left?”
Such were the simpler times of 43 years ago. Onside kicks were not the domain of physics and aerodynamics. They were not keenly studied by a brain trust looking for the slightest of edges.
“We never practiced onside kicks,” von Schamann said. “That wasn’t even thought of. I just did that on my own.”
But fate was on the Sooner side; von Schamann indeed aimed at that second guy from the left, Ohio State fullback Ricardo Volley, and the onside kick bounced off Volley’s shoulder. OU’s Mike Babb recovered, and with three seconds left in the game, von Schamann nailed the most famous field goal in Sooner history, a 41-yarder that beat the Buckeyes 29-28 in Ohio Stadium.
“He (Volley) should never have fielded it, because I hit it pretty hard,” von Schamann said.
To field or not to field. That is the eternal question about onside kicks.
Football’s most desperate play is back at the forefront this week. The Dallas Cowboys’ Greg Zuerlein executed a watermelon onside kick against the Atlanta Falcons that allowed Dallas to complete a miracle, 40-39 comeback victory.
Zuerlein’s kick spun the ball slowly on its fat, inching toward the required 10 yards. The mesmerized Falcons, who could have fallen on the ball at any time, seemed paralyzed at such a close encounter of the football kind, and Dallas’ C.J. Goodwin covered the pigskin at exactly the right time.
In Stillwater, news of the space-ship style onside kick popped up on Mike Gundy’s computer screen, and he dispatched some young coaches to investigate.
“We’re always trying to find ways” to gain an edge, Gundy said.
Plato’s “Republic” declared that “our need will be the real creator,” so when football coaches figured out the math that meant almost certain defeat, they seized upon onside kicks as a way of buying back time. Onside kicks -- recovering your own kickoffs, when they’ve gone at least 10 yards -- is a vestige of rugby, believed to have been adopted for football in 1923.
Over the years, kickers have become quite the wizards at making the ball bounce in funky ways, virtual knuckleballs that can be difficult to grab.
But onside kicks have become increasingly ineffective as safety rules have been enacted.
No running head start for the kickoff team. NFL teams have to be within one yard of the line from which the ball is kicked; colleges get five yards. And neither college nor pro can load up on one side of the kicker. The NFL requires five players on each side of the kicker; colleges require at least four on one side.
Thus onside kicks are best served upon surprise. Like Alabama pulled against Clemson in the 2015 national championship game and the Saints pulled against the Colts in Super Bowl 44. Both onside kicks led to touchdowns and eventual victory.
Some want to make onside kicks obsolete. The Alliance of American Football, the spring that folded after a month or so in 2019, had an alternative -- an offensive play from its 28-yard-line, needing to gain at least 12 yards to retain possession. The Denver Broncos endorsed a similar rule change for the NFL.
That’s too squishy for my blood. Too baseballish, where each extra inning starts with a runner on second base.
Besides, onside kicks offer a chance for sharp thinkers to gain an edge. Dallas special-teams coach John Fassel said Zuerlein and punter Chris Jones experimented with all kinds of onside kicks during training camp. Let’s not legislate ingenuity out of football.
“Especially at a place like ours, where you’re constantly looking for the inches to win and be successful,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said, “you’re always trying to research and study … for those nuances and some of those unique plays in a football game that give you a chance.”
Of course, sometimes the bully, not just the bullied, needs a boost. OU hosts Kansas State on Saturday, and the Sooners a year ago lost 48-41 at K-State. OU nearly staged its own miracle comeback after trailing 48-23. The Sooners’ Braydon Willis recovered Gabe Brkic’s late onside kick, but after replay review, officials ruled that OU’s Trejan Bridges touched the ball before it went the required 10 yards.
The Sooners spend more practice time on onside kicks than they did in Barry Switzer’s days, but Lincoln Riley says he’s still careful.
“You’ve got the time to do it,” Riley said. “I think the question is, it tends to be a pretty physical play, and so you're talking about a lot of bodies in a very very small area, high physicality, high impact. So it just comes down to how much do you actually wanna do that?
“It’s maybe as difficult a play to simulate, without just fully going live, of any play in football. That's why you've gotta have those guys that have some feel and have great reactions, because it tends to happen a little bit different every single time.”
I don’t know of any data on college football onside kicks. But in the NFL, the success rate historically was between 15 and 20 percent, until the safety measures of the last couple of years. Now it’s dropped below 10 percent.
But as everyone from Plato to Uwe von Schamann to Greg Zuerlein knows, the onside kick is a glorious tactic when it works, be it a watermelon kick or aiming the kick at Ricardo Volley.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.