04/29/2016 2:50 PM -
A typical Arena Football League game features significantly more onside kicks than any other brand of football. As each contest ebbs and flows, these kicks are broken down into three categories.
First, there is the “traditional” onside kick, done when a team is down by multiple scores late in the game and absolutely needs to gain an extra possession in order to come back.
Second, there is the surprise onside kick, attempted in a situation where the time and score give every indication that the team is kicking deep. In this case, the hope is to catch the receiving team off-guard and steal an extra possession.
The third category of onside kick is the one that deviates the most from 11-on-11-football strategy. It’s the onside kick to manage the clock in the final minute of a half or the game, often executed when a team is winning or the game is tied.
In each of the last two weeks, the Sharks have suffered a seven-point loss in which the team led at the one-minute timeout of the fourth quarter. And in both games, the Sharks attempted at least one onside kick in the final two minutes of the contest. While it’s true that each of those onside kicks led directly to a touchdown that allowed the opposing team to tie the game, that’s not why the Sharks lost.
Let’s back up for a second. In a one-possession arena football game, having control of the clock is just as important as actually having the lead. The goal is to put your team in the best position to have the ball in an advantageous position in the final seconds.
That’s why fullbacks often fall down at the one-yard line when they’d otherwise have an open end zone. That’s why coaches and quarterbacks often let half of the play clock run off before calling timeout. And that’s why teams onside kick like it’s going out of style.
The game between the Sharks and Rattlers featured a total of 27 offensive possessions that resulted in 21 touchdowns. That means that 78 percent of the time any team had the ball, their offense found the end zone. Knowing that the other team is going to score a majority of the time, the thought process turns to managing the clock. And that’s where the onside kicks begin.
If the other team is going to score – which as we’ve discussed, more often than not, they will – you want them to do it as quickly as possible. These onside kicks are designed to prevent your opponent from marching the length of the field, which would give them an opportunity to force you to use your timeouts before bleeding the clock.
Despite the final outcome of last week’s game against Arizona, this strategy actually worked to perfection.
On Saturday night, Tiger Jones slipped behind the defense and hauled in a five-yard touchdown pass, putting the Sharks ahead by a 62-55 score as the clock hit the one-minute timeout. The Sharks then tried a slow-roll onside kick, which Arizona picked up in the red zone. Nick Davila hit Rod Windsor for a short touchdown pass, but more importantly, the Rattlers’ drive took just seven seconds and the Sharks did not have to use a timeout.
Had the Sharks kicked it deep in that situation, Arizona would have likely started around its own 10-yard line, and could have worked the ball down the field in chunks, forcing the Sharks to call timeouts. With that accomplished, Arizona could have kept the ball inbounds
to burn off most of the rest of the clock before scoring and going for two to take the lead. That would have left the Sharks trailing with very little time to work with.
Instead, Jacksonville was back to receive with all three timeouts and 53 seconds left in the game. At this point, Arizona employed a similar strategy, trying an onside kick. The Sharks recovered, scored a touchdown with 35 seconds left, and responded with yet another onside kick. That led to an Arizona touchdown with 23 seconds left on the clock.
As the clock continues to wind down, it approaches an inflection point where the best-practice strategy changes. At around the 20-second mark, there is no guarantee that your team will get the ball back even after an onside kick and a quick score. Also, with this little time on the clock, it’s significantly harder for your opponent to drive the field. That’s why Arizona then kicked it away.
To recap: The Sharks attempted two onside kicks while ahead in the final minute of Saturday’s game. And as a result of that strategy, the team was back to receive a kickoff in a tie game with 23 seconds on the clock and all three timeouts in their back pocket. In theory, it was the perfect scenario. The Jacksonville offense would have had plenty of time to get in range to either score a touchdown or kick a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
Of course, sometimes the best-laid plans don’t work out. David Hyland fumbled the kickoff return with 18 seconds left, and the Sharks needed a heads-up interception by LaRoche Jackson to keep Arizona from scoring and send the game to overtime. In the extra session, the Rattlers scored, got a stop, and won the game.
Something similar transpired in the previous game against Orlando. After dueling onside kicks, the Sharks had the ball in a first-and-goal with less than 40 seconds remaining in what was a tie game. Jacksonville was in a great position to control the clock and force Orlando to use its timeouts before the Sharks potentially took the lead. We know what happened here, as well. Tommy Grady fumbled, Orlando recovered and scored, and then the Predators got a stop in the final seconds to seal the game.
Yes, back-to-back one-score losses sting. But those losses were not due to onside kicks. Rather, the team’s offense didn’t execute in advantageous situations. The negative ultimate outcomes don’t change that fact that in each game, the Sharks employed a sound strategy that put the team in a position to win.
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