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Start of postseason OT could be a great time for surprise onside kick

One of the memorable moments in Super Bowl history came when the Saints dialed up a surprise onside kick to start the second half of the 44th edition of the game. It would be even more memorable if someone tried it to start overtime.

That’s our last word (I think) on the unprecedented occurrence of postseason overtime with the 2022 rule change that guarantees a possession for both teams.

How about a surprise onside kick to kick things off?

I know that onside kicks are much harder to recover under the current configuration of players, prior to foot meeting ball. But those statistics come predominantly from situations in which everyone knows an onside kick is coming. A truly surprise onside kick still has a chance of working, same as it did when Sean Payton decided to do it.

If the 49ers had done it nine days ago, here’s what would have happened. If the Chiefs had recovered it, the opening drive of overtime would have started at the spot where they secured the ball. If the Chiefs had scored, the 49ers would have had a chance to match it.

If, in contrast, the 49ers had recovered it, the game immediately would have flipped to sudden death. First score wins.

We’re not saying it’s something someone should do, in any given case. It’s something someone could do. And, in the right situation, such as when the kicking team believes it has the right approach to an onside kick and/or when the kicking team spots a tendency in the receiving team’s front-line players that might make it easier to recover the ball, boom. Super Bowl XLIV all over again. (It also could happen at any other level of the playoffs, obviously.)

The biggest threat to that ever happening is the looming possibility that the NFL will scrap the kickoff and put the ball at the receiving team’s 25, with a fourth-and-whatever play being the simulation for a late-game, gotta-have-it onside kick. As the powers-that-be continue to wait for someone/anyone to suggest tweaks to the kickoff that make it both safe and not irrelevant, let’s not forget that, if/when change happens, there needs to be an equivalent of the surprise onside kick.

That’s why the best alternative to the kick off might be a fourth-and-whatever scrimmage play. The kicking team can punt, simulating the kickoff. It can go for it, simulating the known onside kick. It can run a fake punt, simulating the surprise onside kick. (It also can line up as if to go for it, and then do a Randall Cunningham-style pooch punt.)

The problem is that, once the NFL comes up with its permanent solution for the most dangerous play in football (as the NFL calls it), the league will pivot to the next most dangerous play, the punt return. Which makes a punt not a great way, in the assessment of those calling the shots, to move on from the kickoff.

At some point, don’t we just need to accept that certain elements of football are dangerous? The players know it; Chris Borland was an aberration. Everyone now knows the risks, and no one is walking away from the game.

I really didn’t intend to end up in this spot when embarking on a pitch for an eventual surprise onside kick to start overtime. I got there because it’s impossible to ignore the vibes coming from 345 Park Avenue. Someone in the ivory tower (and probably not someone who ever played football beyond high school, if that far) wants to get rid of the kickoff. It feels inevitable. And when it inevitably goes, the surprise onside kick goes with it.

So, basically, there’s a chance that the 49ers will end up being the only team that ever had a chance to call a surprise onside kick in the new two-possessions-guaranteed postseason overtime environment.