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Second-Guessing Tedford : How Soon to Onside Kick

Often, as football fans, we will second-guess the play-calling after the fact. Coach called a draw play on third and long? That was dumb -- except when it works, in which case he looks like a genius. It's a guessing game against the defense, one that has been poetically likened to a chess match, though it's often a lot more like Battleship -- firing in the dark until you hit on something that works. We can criticize these decisions with our superior powers of hindsight, but it's rare that I find myself criticizing a play call before the play has taken place. Saturday afternoon in the sweltering Maryland heat, I found myself doing just that.

The Bears were trailing all afternoon, but with 7 minutes to play, they finally scored their first touchdown of the game to pull within two scores, 28-13. On the ensuing kickoff, Cal lined up for an onside kick, but even before the play went off, I found myself disagreeing with the call. Not strongly, mind you; I certainly wasn't blowing my top over a bonehead call. I just felt like there was plenty of time and the Bears could kick it deep and play defense and still have a shot to win. That's what I would have done, anyway.

I bring this up not because I think Tedford cost us the game with this decision (in all probability the Bears were toast either way), but because I think there's some interesting strategy to be discussed behind such a call. Bear with me for a second:

First off, the clock. Not only were there 7 minutes left in the game, but Cal had a full compliment of timeouts left. Given the new clock rules, a team gets 40 seconds after a play is blown dead before they have to snap the ball again, so a timewasting running play can shave around 45 seconds off. Three runs up the middle and a punt can take as much as 3 minutes off the game clock.

So, let's say the Bears kick it deep and send out their defense. If Maryland can't get a first down, they take at most 3 minutes off the clock; less if you use your timeouts, but I think I save them for now. If the Terrapins pick up a first down, then I start to get desperate and think about burning them. Assuming your run defense holds, you get the ball back with about 4 minutes to play. If you can score quickly (say, a minute or less off the clock), you can even think about kicking deep again, this time using your timeouts between Maryland running plays. Again, assuming you don't give up a first down, you can get the ball back with ~2 minutes left, plenty of time for a game-tying touchdown drive.

All of this assumes everything goes Cal's way, a tall order, especially on a day where very little seemed to be coming up "Bears". Still, I generally favor holding off desperate measures until my hand is forced. An onside kick with 7 minutes to go seemed like an unnecessary gamble. However, after Maryland and Cal traded touchdowns, kicking onside again with just 5 minutes to play seemed like the right decision to me. It's a close call, to be sure.

Still, even if you later have to try an onside kick to win the game, with the Bears down by 2 scores, I'd like to try and get the ball back and score once without resorting to the onside kick. It's always a desperate call to rely on recovering an onside kick to win a game, as the odds are stacked against you. Having to rely on recovering two consecutive onside kicks? Those odds are downright dismal.

Here's something else to consider: how much do you trust Cal's defense? If you think they can't hold Maryland to a three-and-out, you've got to be a lot more inclined to try the onside kick. However, at that point in the game, I thought they looked pretty good, especially against the run. Yes, Cal gave up 141 rushing yards in the game, but over the previous 7 Maryland possession, Cal had given up a grand total of 23 yards on the ground on 26 attempts, forcing 4 punts, recovering 2 fumbles, and giving up just one touchdown. In no way did I anticipate Cal giving up a 38 yard run on the very next play from scrimmage, setting up the Terrapins' final touchdown.

In the same vein, how much do you trust Cal's offense? 'Considerably less so' would be my honest answer. Yes, you have to give your offense a chance to score or you won't win the game, but you also have to score quickly. Cal's touchdown drive that immediately preceded the first onside kick took almost 5 minutes off the game clock in a 13-play drive. The Bears could ill afford to waste more time like that again, and perhaps it was the slowness of their offense that convinced Tedford that it was time to take an onside kick gamble. Indeed, another new clock rule change comes into play here.

Previously, if the ball carrier went out of bounds, the clock would stop until the ball was snapped on the next play. However, except for the last 2 minutes of the half, the clock now starts up again when the referee blows his whistle, indicating that the ball is ready. Valuable seconds tick away every time the offense gets into formation and gets set to run a play. This makes it tougher for teams to come back, as their desperation drives now take longer. Tedford was certainly aware of this rule change, and was probably very worried about having enough time to run Cal's offense. It would have been presumptuous to anticipate that the Bears would move down the field with ease on their next possession, scoring in just 1:14 against Maryland's prevent defense. Hindsight's great like that, isn't it?

Finally, there's one other factor that Tedford might have considered, and I think it lends strong support to the decision to try the onside kick: Cal's kickoff coverage was not good. Pretty bad, actually. Sure, after Cal's 3 onside kicks, Maryland started with the ball on Cal's 39, Cal's 40, and Cal's 40, but on the Bears' 3 regular kickoffs, Maryland still started on their own 40, their own 39, and their own 39. If Seawright and the coverage team were regularly pinning the Terrapins behind their own 20, that might have been one thing, but given the Bear's poor kickoff performance, all Tedford was risking in trying the onside kick was about 20 yards of field position. Is 20 yards a big deal? Sure. Would you carelessly concede it without good reason? Of course not. But it certainly does tip the risk/reward ratio significantly in favor of trying the onside kick. Besides, if the defense can hold Maryland to a three-and-out (something they were ultimately unable to do in either case), that leaves them, at the very most, on the outer fringes of field goal range.

So perhaps I didn't convince you that Tedford made the wrong call; in fact, I'm not sure that he did. It's not the call I would have made, but then, no one's paying me millions of dollars to coach football games. Arguments can be made in either direction. Still, I think it's an interesting problem facing a football coach, one in which there is no clear-cut 'right' answer. Hindsight lets us second-guess Coach Tedford, but without knowing the subsequent outcomes, would you have done things any differently?