The Onside Kick, A Massive Canal and the Winking Ghost of John Heisman
By Ed Wilkins.
The year is 1905. The NFL is still years away from formation, with the only official games played between universities. 18 players have died this year from injuries sustained on the field. Some have even passed away on the field. 159 more players have sustained serious injuries, such as severe head traumas, broken necks, and even severed limbs. Shaller Mathew, Dean of the University of Chicago has recently called football ‘a boy-killing, man-mutilating, money making, education prostituting, gladiatorial sport’. The sport is much different than it is today, and the incumbent President, Teddy ‘Mr Big Canal’ Roosevelt, is under pressure to outlaw the sport in its entirety.
Now Big Teddy has two sons that currently play for Harvard; plus, he isn't a fan of Government interference into the average American's life, and at any rate there are Continents that are, abhorrently, still connected. He decides not to outlaw Football in its entirety, but calls for a reformation in the rules to make them safer, and to avoid the aforementioned severed limbs and such.
Enter Johann Wilhelm Heisman. You might know him as John Heisman. Yes, that John Heisman. He will soon be the John Heisman who has a bust in the NCAA hall of fame, the innovator to standardise the Center snapping the ball and the coach of a Georgia Tech team which would emerge victorious against Cumberland College by a score of 222-0, but for now he is a young, idealistic football coach. He has coached at Oberlin, Auburn and Clemson already, and thinks the sport is too dangerous. With the support of other likeminded coaches he puts forward a pioneering new idea designed to encourage player safety. ‘Legalise the forward pass’.
Let’s bask in the glow of that idea for a moment. In 1905, the forward pass is outlawed, so, by the time any player holding the ball gets to the line of scrimmage he is automatically a runner. This means two things. Number one, this sport is likely the most boring sport that isn’t cricket. Number two, this sport is dangerous. Brutal even. Let me show you a typical formation from this era. You may have seen it on a trick play every now and again, but it looks very arcane compared to the modern spread offense.
A couple of things to note here. In this formation, the Center would usually snap the ball to the Tailback in stride – the Quarterback is mostly a blocking position. The two Tackles are both lined up to the right of the Right Guard, and there is a Tight End on either side of the line. The Wingback is on the far right of the formation and would typically set the edge on a run play the way a Fullback or pulling Guard would in the modern era.
Isn’t it majestic? It looks far more like a kicking formation than one used to retain possession. Now imagine that you’re on the sidelines for a game in 1905. You watch two teams repeatedly smash into each other, over and over for sixty minutes. I’m not going to say that it wouldn’t be entertaining for a bit, but there is precious little that you can do here to mix it up. The tailback can run to the Strong side on the right, or the Weak side to the left, or can toss a lateral to one of the other three eligible receivers. There. That’s it. It’s not a formation designed with creativity, finesse, or, indeed, the long-term health of its players in mind. It only has one goal - to bludgeon the other team into a bloody pulp.
Even speaking as a Mike Zimmer Ground-and-Pound disciple, the iconic image of Football is the deep pass, ball spinning in the twinkle of the lights. It’s always twilight in that vignette, and the ball never hits the ground. I think it’s weird to imagine that the sport developed in the early years in spite of the deep pass, rather than around it. It wasn’t even a legal option until almost forty years after the first official game, which was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. An interesting caveat, here: in 1905 the pigskin was still essentially a rugby ball, much flabbier and rotund than the modern Duke. As players took to throwing, the ball became more streamlined, enabling the spiral motion to launch the ball further and with greater accuracy. Thus, the prolate spheroid we know today.
But I digress. The sport is still in its infancy at this point, and great visionaries are about to take the forward pass and (ironically) run with it. Scores go from being 6-0 to 85-73 as defenses struggle to contend with the sudden aerial bombardment. From this chaos arises men like Heisman, who have been begging for the chance to diversify Football since the 1890’s. In article by the Oberlin Review during his first coaching job back in 1892, it was written that ‘Mr. Heisman has entirely remade our football. He has taught us scientific football.’ A few years later, his passing offense will put up 222 points on some poor saps, the largest ever score in NCAA history. But for now, we can pass forward, and football as we know it is on the horizon. Heisman has new ways to surprise the heck out of his opponents.
The forward pass wasn’t the only way to advance the ball though…
Let’s fast forward a bit. We’ve moved out of the dark ages, into a football Renaissance (Teddy has finished his canal as well), or, well, at least a brighter version of a dark age. You see, another school of thought has emerged. Led by the NFL’s equivalent of the Visigoths, another offensive debate threatens – which is a more effective method of moving the ball, the forward pass, or THE ONSIDE KICK.
You didn’t misread that, alas. The onside kick was debated as to whether it was a more effective method of moving the chains than the forward pass. I mean, fuck, some of the brightest minds of the NFL generation thought that, comparable to a pass, a directionless kick into a scrum of players was a more effective tool in retaining possession. Never mind the sense of futility the kicking team feels at a failed onside kick, think of the futility of an audience watching a team attempt to use the onside kick to progress up the field, over and over. The squib kick flutters for a moment, and then eleven players converge on it again, with running starts, bunch formations. Concussions aplenty.
Some of the sport’s great architects are yet again finding ways to put their key players in the hospital wing. Let’s analyse this in detail – I’ve created a little summary based on what I think the four key tenets of the sport should be.
First, we will look at the forward pass:
Player Safety: Yes, the forward pass encouraged fewer players at the line of scrimmage which in turn made the game safer for everyone.
Watchability: Yes, the forward pass lead to more interesting games; chunk play gains on a regular basis; greater variation in play design and offensive identity; and, critically, a much higher level of player/role specialism.
Professionalism: See above – the sport was able to better identify players of great talent due to the increase in positional responsibility and specialty.
Advantage: This is a bit of a weird one, but hear me out. With the forward pass offense, the advantage was with the team holding the ball. This is important, as it incentivises ball security which in turn adds a greater level of competition to retain the ball and encourages defensive takeaways; all things which are fundamentally good for the sport.
Now for the onside kick offense:
Player Safety: lol, no.
Watchability: nope, sorry
Professionalism: not a chance.
Advantage: Gee whiz – let’s dive a bit deeper into this one. There is no advantage to be gained in essentially rolling the dice to retain possession. It does not incentivise possession retention. It does not incentivise player speciality. In short, it is actively counter-productive to the development of the sport.
But teams were doing it, and, in counterpoint to those above, there is a reason you can understand it. It’s not a good one, but it’s a reason. It’s the same reason that school bullies punch kids that are smaller than them, rather than fight them with GCSE results. Because they can. Could. I dunno, tenses are silly. What it boils down is this. Imagine you’re the coach of a small school; one that can’t compete financially and in terms of player acquisition. Are you going to lose in a straight fight? Probably. Perhaps your passing game isn’t great, or you don’t have the pieces on defense to compete. Cool, no worries – let’s basically play them at an entirely different sport. This has merit, but it’s the same principle as, like, suicide bombers. They don’t really play by the rules either. I’ll add in something else too. Under the rules before 1920, the ball was live the second it crossed the neutral zone. Cue zaniness. And there is your chance.
As victories mean more revenue for your sporting programme, it’s easy to see why teams took this approach. It would’ve also made them hard to root for. And astoundingly dull to follow. And encouraged an ever-changing cast of black, blue and bloodied players. And ensured that teams were endlessly mired in a desire to make life miserable for the opponents rather than to make the game more beautiful.
It’s interesting to think of what would happen if this were still permitted today, but with the tenets of the modern offense in there as well. It is blue sky thinking in the extreme, but just imagine this – your team is down by two points with 3 minutes and 45 seconds left on the quarter. You’ve made it all the way up to the opponent’s 33, but after a sack and a daft penalty on 3rd down you’re now on 4th and 12 from the 35. Your team line up for a kick, but instead of whanging it through the posts (and potentially missing and handing possession over to the other team anyway, empty-handed) the kicker squibs it over the defensive formation and it is recovered by one of your players after having travelled more than ten yards. He rumbles forward for five more hard-fought yards more before being taken down. Your team has a first down at the opponent’s 20. Everyone is jazzed. Romo is in the Booth, praising your cajones. It would be a viable fourth down option, perhaps, especially when sprinkled in alongside regular kicks, and other conversion attempts.
Alas, no. The rule makers got out their big red pens out and nerfed the onside kick – in view of making the game safer and purer, they got rid of it. Almost. They didn’t outlaw it entirely, but made sure that it could never be put in the hands of the architects of some of the most dull offensive minds in the country, so I guess you could call it a success. They kept the offside kick, but nowadays you can only use it in a free-kick situation (a kick-off after points have been scored, you have conceded a safety, or the rare fair-catch kick return turned free kick opportunity).
Onside kicks are silly, and kind of dangerous, so perhaps this is for the best. In 2020, there are significant schools of thought that suggest we should get rid of the onside kick totally, replacing it with a 4th and 15 opportunity; something more organic perhaps, in keeping with the more enjoyable, iconic moments of the sport. This might one day be a footnote in a longer piece, a new set of rules designed to protect players further. And, through that lens, I’m all for it. For my ten cents (about 8 and a half p, by today’s conversion) we should replace the kick-off entirely, and have an option for the 4th and 15, or else give the other team the ball on their own 25, as if they had just received a touchback – more than 60% of drives start this way anyway. Kick-offs are far more dangerous than onside kicks, in the modern sport.
But in that case, the onside kick should evolve again, rather than we lose it completely. Because, for maybe one play in a game of hundreds, it’s comforting for even the most humble of us, to see chaos reign supreme. Somewhere up there, John Heisman is smiling.