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Onside kick to open a game is rare, risky but can have payoff

On Sunday, during the first wave of games, we saw two different teams begin with an onside kick, almost at the same exact time. Since last season's Super Bowl when the Saints opened up the second half with one, the onside kick has been back en vogue, as teams are always looking for a way to steal a possession.

In Detroit, the Rams opened the game with an onside kick, and the Chiefs did the same in Indianapolis. Same play, same situations.

This begs the question: When is the right time to use the onside kick?

For obvious reasons, the best time is when the front line of the opponent takes off too early, and the special teams coach can almost assure the head coach that his unit will gain the possession. The other time is in a critical game, when you want to steal a possession from your opponent.

Brian Garfinkel / Associated Press
There have been eight onside kicks to open games in the last 10 seasons, and Eagles kicker David Akers has been involved in three of them.
Onside kicks to open NFL games since 2001
Year Wk Team Kick Result
2010 5 Rams Failed Lost to Lions, 44-6
2010 5 Chiefs Failed Lost to Colts, 19-9
2009 12 Eagles Failed Beat Redskins, 27-24
2008 14 49ers Failed Beat Jets, 24-14
2008 9 Steelers Failed Beat Redskins, 23-6
2003 6 Eagles Failed Lost to Cowboys, 23-21
2001 12 Eagles Recovered Beat Chiefs, 23-10
2001 4 Bills Recovered Lost to Jets, 42-36
Source: ESPN.com

The Saints knew they had to be unconventional in their thinking to beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, and they also knew they needed to gain an extra possession somehow, someway, at some point during the game. Typically an offense has 12 possessions each game, and normally when Peyton Manning has this many chances in a big game, he can do some severe damage. Therefore it was crucial for the Saints to try and take one or two possessions away from him by any means necessary.

In Sunday's scenarios, the Chiefs seem to be right in trying to gain the extra possession from Manning. Yet, in reality, starting the game with the onside kick does not really gain the possession for your team, nor does it prevent the Colts from mounting a comeback.

Playing the Colts on the road is difficult, and oftentimes the first drive for the visiting team results in a three-and-out (lost possession) because the crowd is into the game, and the noise is at its peak level. Even when winning the coin toss while playing the Colts on the road, the best case scenario is to defer and take the ball to start the second half, hoping that if you fall behind your team would gain two possessions -- one at the end of the half and one to start the second half to play catch-up, especially since Manning wouldn't have the ball. The noise level to start the second half pales in comparison to the start of the game, and an offense can actually run smoothly.

The other factor in dealing with Manning on the road is to try and reduce the game -- meaning build the lead late in the game, not at the start where Manning and Co. have time, along with possessions, to come from behind. No NFL game is decided in the first quarter, so stealing a possession there to start the game is not a prudent play. I admire Chiefs coach Todd Haley for thinking in a big game much like his mentor, Bill Parcells, but Haley might have been wise to hold it for later. And I'm sure if Haley had seen Ryan Succop kick as badly in practice as he did the onside kick against the Colts, he would have never attempted the kick.

In Detroit, both head coaches wanted to start the game fast and build the lead. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and his staff clearly must have seen something in the Lions' kickoff return tape to make him think there was a chance to steal a possession. Fearing the Lions' offense enough to take away a possession is not realistic at this point, especially with Shaun Hill at quarterback.

This change of possession allowed the Lions to kick a field goal, which the Rams answered on the next possession. Again, I love the creative thinking, but there is a time and place for everything, and in the first quarter of games there is too much time to overcome a lost possession.

So when is the best time? Late in the game, when a change of possession can turn the game around and one more score might put the game out of reach. Anytime before that, there has to be something in the tape to make a team believe they can gain the ball because they won't actually steal a possession.

Time to challenge

Is challenging a play early in the game the right thing to do? When it involves a scoring play similar to the one in the Green Bay-Washington game, it does. Packers WR Jordy Nelson caught a first-and-goal pass in the flat at the start of the second quarter, and he danced along the sideline and was ruled out at the 1. When replay occurred (which was right after the play), both Fox announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were uncertain where Nelson's foot stepped out. It was clearly not on the first step and might have been on the second, but from the replay it did appear Nelson made a great play extending the ball to the pylon.

But Packers coach Mike McCarthy did not throw the challenge flag. Green Bay was moving the ball so easily that maybe McCarthy figured he would score on the next two plays anyway, therefore no need to risk a challenge. But the Packers didn't score after failing on fourth down. This was a costly mistake on the part of Green Bay's replay team. It was clearly more worthy of a challenge than the play in the Bears game two weeks ago.

From my perspective, having watched Packers games, McCarthy needs to have someone in the booth helping him, and if he already does, then it might be time for a change. These challenges and non-challenges are costing the Packers. Whenever the play in question involves points, and the TV networks give the booth a quick review, there should be a challenge.

Childress doesn't get it

Have you ever watched a movie a million times and wish the part you hate would change? I do that all the time when I watch "The Godfather". When Santino is headed to the toll plaza in a fit of rage, wanting to kill his brother-in-law, I often scream to myself, "Don't go, Sonny, don't go! I want you in this movie!" But sure as hell, Sonny takes off and the rest is history.

When watching the Vikings and Brad Childress try to manage a game, I am often rooting for him to not head to the toll plaza, but just like Sonny, Childress can't help himself.

Early in the fourth quarter of Monday night's game, with the Jets leading 15-7, the Vikings started mounting a drive. Brett Favre made an incredible throw to Percy Harvin on third-and-long that Harvin turned into a touchdown, making the game 15-13. With Harvin in the end zone, Childress signals for a two-point conversion try, but then changes his mind and sends out the extra-point team (I don't know why). As the referee is starting the 25-second play clock and the Vikings in place to kick, Childress calls a timeout and changes his mind again.

This is so bad on so many levels. When the Vikings got the ball, the first thing that should have been decided by the offensive staff before the drive started was whether or not to go for two. This decision should not be made on the spot, but rather built into the essence of the drive. How can there be this much indecision?

Makes you wonder about other things as it relates to the Vikings and their preparation.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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