Thanksgiving Day was the ultimate insult to Atlanta Falcons fans, but a day where the rest of the NFL world found more than turkey legs on their holiday table. The Falcons were not only officially eliminated from playoff contention, the loss to the New Orleans Saints clinched for their arch-rival a third-straight NFC South title and made them the first NFL team to clinch a playoff spot.
However special teams coaches rejoiced in Thursday’s results. It has been proven that onside kicks aren’t next to impossible to complete successfully. The Falcons third placekicker of the year, Younghoe Koo achieved the feat three times, twice officially.
It’s not like onside kicks have ever been easy to execute. Staying onside as the kicker approaches the ball, trying not to touch the ball in any way before it travels 10-yards and working against the opponent’s “hands team” have always made the successful onside kicks a rare occurrence.
Still, with the new rules put in place on kickoffs for “safety” before the season, the onside kick had nearly become extinct. With kickoff teams no longer able to overload one side of the ball, shift before the kick or even take a step forward before the ball is kicked, there were only two successful onside kicks in all of 2019 before Thursday.
Kickers this season had been staying with the old strategy of either driving the ball into the turf to get a big bounce or kicking over the ball to try and get an unpredictable bounce. Neither was enabling coverage teams to get to the ball in time.
In the first Thanksgiving Day game, the Chicago Bears at the Detroit Lions, placekicker Matt Prater accidentally succeeded in getting a recovery by the Lions. In his attempt to execute a squib kick he lined the ball off Chicago’s Deon Bush as Bush began falling back to setup to block. The ball ricochet back towards the Lions where Jalen Reeves-Maybin made the recovery.
Then came Thursday night. With 3:26 remaining in the game, the Falcons were down 26-15 after a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Russell Gage. As the team lined up for the onside kick attempt, Koo let the ball lay on the turf against the tee.
The resulting kick took the unpredictable bounces kickers have been looking for all season. Foyesade Oluokun dove on to of the ball to give the Falcons the extra possession. Unfortunately, an offsides penalty that wasn’t offsides was called and Koo had to do it again. Which he did, with Oluokun again pouncing on the loose ball. Then, after his 43-yard field goal, Koo did it again. This time Kemal Ishmael came away with the recovery.
So, it will be interesting to see if more try Koo’s onside-kick method in the final month of the season. Has he created a method that will keep the ball alive long enough for recovery teams to have a chance at it? The game of football is constantly changing. Maybe we saw the evolution of the onside kick on Thursday night.