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Running the Numbers: Why the Cowboys’ Onside Kick Was the Right Move

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My latest “Running the Numbers” article is a look at Jason Garrett’s decision to attempt a surprise onside kick with a three-point lead and 2:51 to play in the first half. I absolutely loved the call, even though it didn’t work out.

In statistical terms, surprise onside kicks aren’t all that risky. Since 2000, teams that are leading games recover onside kicks around 55 percent of the time. With a lead, any onside kick is unexpected, and thus easily classified as a “surprise.”

Now, the question is whether or not a 55 percent recovery rate is worth the risk of giving up field position. When a team fails to recover an onside kick, they’re basically giving away about 30 yards of field position for free.

Well, it turns out that the value of possessing the football is far, far more valuable than 30 yards of field position (especially 30 yards on the opponent’s end of the field). Teams that return normal deep kickoffs (and thus start around the 20-yard line) typically score around 0.8 points-per-drive. That number jumps to around 2.0 points-per-drive if they recover an onside kick at midfield (i.e. the kicking team fails to recover their surprise attempt). That’s a pretty big jump.

Read more analysis at DallasCowboys.com.

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2 Responses to Running the Numbers: Why the Cowboys’ Onside Kick Was the Right Move

  1. Tom says:

    This is a case when you can’t trust the stats to tell you the entire story.
    It might very well be statistically advantageous to gamble on an onsides kick attempt, but WHY would you do it up by 3 pts against a Bucs team that you’ve shut down all half. I thought it was just another example of a poor decision by Garrett. Not even considering that the ST unit has not been exactly lighting it up this season. Just kick it deep and let the strength of this team, the defense, hold the Bucs offense like you have been doing all day, and then try to return a punt more than 5 yds. The ST unit needs to work on the basics before trying to be creative, is what I’m saying. Also, when you are beating a weak team like TB, at least on offense, why give them a spark by botching the onsides attempt. The whole thing was dumb, regardless of what the stats say.

  2. Tom..I really think the situation was a perfect one. The stats say the kick was a smart move, but I’m going to say it was even better than the numbers say. The timing (just under 3:00) was perfect to legitimately “steal” a possession. Even with a deep kick and three-and-out, you’re looking at perhaps 90 seconds to move the ball 70 yards. That can be done, but a TD in that situation is unlikely. The play of the defense should be a reason to attempt the onside kick, IMO, because there was a good chance the Cowboys could keep TB out of FG range, as they did.

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