Even if you didn’t catch the game live, by now you’ve certainly seen Atlanta’s onside kick fiasco. The Falcons did everything they could to blow a game they built a huge lead in, but all they had to do was accomplish the statistically likely feat of picking up an onside kick and draining what little time remained to ensure the win. This was not an impossible feat by any stretch of the imagination, even if Falcons fans were understandably filled with dread going into the moment.
Somehow, what ensued was even more nightmarish than any of us might have imagined.
That moment when the Falcons watched an onside kick as if its about to roll foul pic.twitter.com/GhUmgnFceD— Reese Waters (@reesewaters) September 20, 2020
Even since then, I think we’ve all been trying to figure out what the heck happened. If a single Falcon had fallen on the ball before it rolled 10 yards, that would’ve been it for Dallas. Yet not a single player did, leading to the horrible spectacle of at least four Falcons staring at the ball before making a far-too-late attempt on it. Dan Quinn, predictably, had a pretty straightforward take on the situation.
Dan Quinn said his players should have made an aggressive move to get the ball on the onside kick.— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) September 20, 2020
In the absence of a more compelling explanation—and I am genuinely unsure we’re going to get one this week, but I’m hopeful someone will address it tomorrow—there are two possibilities.
#1: They thought it wasn’t going 10 yards
This ball was not close to rolling out of bounds, so that can’t have been the issue. Atlanta may have thought, however, that the ball was not going to make it the requisite 10 yards, and thus the smart play would be not risking touching it and having it squirt away into the waiting hands of Cowboys special teamers.
This is maybe a generous interpretation, but it’s one that’s understandable if you watch the kick until your eyes bleed, which I maybe did. Initially the kick is sort of scooting along in a relatively straight line that carries it about 5 yards before the spin begins to send it careening sideways, where it goes sharply diagonal at a leisurely pace. Up until the very end, the ball’s unusual spin and trajectory at least suggested the possibility that it might fall short of going 10 yards, which is a testament to Greg Zuerlein’s effort.
This still leaves the lingering question of why nobody tried to fall on it before 10 yards regardless, especially after the ball really started digging sideways. If it was fear of not coming up with it and giving it back to the Cowboys, well, they were still too late to dive on it once it cleared the requisite yardage. That means we have to at least consider a second possibility.
#2: They didn’t know the rules
This one seems so farfetched on its face that I’m only adding it here in case a player involved or Kotwica comes back tomorrow and says “yes, we didn’t realize that.” We are talking about professional football players, some of them very good ones, coached by a well-regarded special teams coach.
Will McFadden at AtlantaFalcons.com had a good writeup where Quinn made it clear that he felt the team knew what they were supposed to be doing and would’ve initially been on the lookout for a ball that suddenly jumped up. Once it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, however, it’s not clear why the mentality of the players near the ball did not change.
“I think they definitely know,” Quinn said. “The front three are usually blocking as they’re going. The high-bouncers go to the second side, so the front line, generally on an onside kick, they’re looking to get a block first and then the hop goes to the next player. When that instance happens, and it’s not one that is a high-hopper then you just transfer in and go to your ball. You’re looking at your assignment first of who you have to go block. Certainly the ball and then your assignment, they definitely know the rule.”
The receiving team can touch the ball at any point on an onside kick. Once they touch it, obviously, it becomes a live ball that the Cowboys could then scoop up and cherish. However, a team that did not know they could touch the ball before it went 10 yards might react exactly the way the Falcons did, by waiting for it to go 10 yards and then trying to fall on it. The fact that the Falcons only really reacted when a Cowboy went for it, and the fact that the ball was nowhere near going out of bounds, would (incredibly) suggest again that Atlanta’s special teamers thought they couldn’t make a play until the ball had gone 10 yards.
It seems absolutely incredible that the team would not know they could make a play on the ball, but again, this was an incredible play. I don’t think we can dismiss the possibility out of hand.
Whatever the actual reason, the Falcons didn’t lose that game simply because of the onside kick. It still will be an indelible image for this team in this season, regardless of what happens the rest of the way, and is the kind of highly visible failure that is sparking