Sean Payton and Broncos may be biggest losers of NFL’s new onside kick rules

The Denver Broncos may suffer most from the league's new onside kick rules, especially considering the amount of success that head coach Sean Payton has found with onside kicks.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos
Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos / Perry Knotts/GettyImages

February 7, 2010. It's halftime at Super Bowl XLIV in Miami Gardens, Florida. The New Orleans Saints had the best scoring offense in the league, but the first half did not go as planned. The Saints scored just six points through two quarters, and to make matters worse, they're kicking off to start the second half. If Peyton Manning gets the ball and drives the Indianapolis Colts down the field, New Orleans could face a two-possession deficit. That's the last thing the Saints need. 

In the locker room, head coach Sean Payton makes the decision to wager the game on one play call: Ambush. "Let's go get this game," Payton tells his team

After halftime, rookie kicker Thomas Morstead lines up to kick the ball off deep, but — surprise! It's an onside kick. Morstead sends the ball into a high, bouncing spin to the left. The ball slips out of the hands of Colts wide receiver Hank Baskett, and Saints safety Chris Reis falls on it. The gambit pays off. Saints ball. The rest, as they say, is history: The Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, 31-17.

New onside kick rules put an end to Sean Payton's trickery

Payton's surprise onside kick will be remembered as one of the gutsiest plays in league history, but the play call will never be seen again. At the annual league meetings, NFL owners approved a rule proposal that will redesign kickoffs. Under the league's new kickoff structure, teams are required to announce their attention to attempt an onside kick. That, of course, means there will be no more surprises.

Perhaps no team will suffer more from the loss of onside trickery than Payton's Denver Broncos. After all, the surprise onside kick was not a one-time foray for Payton.

When Payton joined the Broncos in 2023, he began his coaching tenure with a surprise onside kick attempt in Denver's season opener. The Broncos almost pulled it off, but it didn't go nearly as well this time around. Although the Broncos recovered the ball, the ball didn't travel the requisite 10 yards before a Broncos player touched it. A penalty negated the recovery, and the Broncos suffered a narrow 17-16 loss against the Las Vegas Raiders.

The league's historical average onside recovery rate was 12 percent before 2018. Since the 2018 NFL season, the success rate for onside kicks has fallen to 5.6 percent. Yet, despite the odds, the Saints recovered nine out of 17 onside kick attempts (52.9 percent) during Payton's 16-year tenure in New Orleans.

The onside kick was effectively eliminated as an unintended consequence of new kickoff rules that were implemented in 2018. Once a last-gasp attempt for a stirring comeback, the onside kick has become a lost art. The competition committee discussed several ways to fix the onside kick over the past five years, ranging from reasonable solutions to outlandish alternatives. Until now, every proposal had stalled. The hope is that the redesigned kickoff increases the frequency of onside kicks attempts and kick returns.

While the element of surprise may be gone from onside kicks, perhaps Payton can find a new advantage. After all, he's proven more than capable of bending luck in his favor.

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