Sparking Another Patriots Comeback: Anatomy of an Onside Kick

James Christensen@@nepatriotsdraftContributor IDecember 11, 2013

Dec 8, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski (3) celebrates after a successful onside kick against the Cleveland Browns during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

While the brains of the New England Patriots players may have been telling them it was over, their hearts never believed it.

The eyes of NFL fans around the country couldn't believe what they saw either.

Stephen Gostkowski dribbling an onside kick slowly down the field. Kyle Arrington scooping up the ball and giving his team new life.

The Patriots simply refused to die.

This late reversal was truly uncharted territory for the Patriots franchise. Paul Kenyon from the Providence Journal explains:

How often have the Patriots successfully pulled off an onside kick? The last time they recovered one was Jan. 1, 1995, in a playoff game at Cleveland, when the Browns were coached by Bill Belichick. But the Pats lost that game.

The only time in franchise history they have recovered an onside kick and won the game was in 1964 against the Jets at Fenway Park. And that one was done in the first half.

Nearly 19 years after the last recovery, Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien lined up his kickoff unit for a last-gasp try at giving Tom Brady a chance to win the game. Here is how it played out.

NFL Game Rewind

The Patriots are lined up with four players on the far side of the field and six—including Arrington—on the near side. Other than Gostkowski, nobody is inside the numbers.

The Browns match up evenly, with the exception of leaving Gostkowski uncovered. In fact, there is a dearth of Browns covering the middle of the field. This would prove costly.

NFL Game Rewind

At the moment of kickoff, the Patriots have gained position on the Browns. There are two New England players closing in on the hash marks, while the nearest Cleveland players are still yards away. This will allow them to keep Gostkowski clean as he attempts to corral the ball.

Gostkowski does a great job of not tipping his hand—or foot in this case—until the last possible moment.

NFL Game Rewind

The play was designed to have the two interior Patriots blockers seal the two Browns players, and have Gostkowski fall on the ball once it reaches the 10-yard barrier.

Kyle Arrington—coming off the frame from the left—is supposed to come in behind in case Gostkowski can't field the ball for some reason.

In action, the play is set up perfectly due to the element of surprise achieved by initial positioning. Browns running back Fozzy Whittaker threw a wrench in the plans, knifing in between Jamie Collins and Nate Ebner to snag the ball.

Former Patriots receiver Troy Brown—now with—was a big fan of the play call:

Great design play by the Patriots because what you see now is that once the ball is kicked out of bounds you can't re-kick it ever again. So they do a good job of kicking the ball down the middle of the field to give themselves a chance to get the ball. And just a great play by so many guys getting blocks on people, taking people out of the equation, and then giving their guys a chance to come in and fall on the ball.

NFL Game Rewind

Whittaker got a hand on the ball about 9.5 yards down the field, before Gostkowski was legally allowed to touch it. Unfortunately for Whittaker, he didn't field it cleanly. Arrington made it to back up Gostkowski right on cue and found an expectant football, just waiting to be pounced on.

Kyle Arrington talked about his thought process going into the play after the game:

I just hoped it wasn’t a flag. I was just hoping – I thought I saw one of their guys hit it first, and so when I recovered it, it might have been [at] that 9 and 3/4 yard [line], so I was just hoping it wasn’t a flag. Just a good, legal play. We got the ball, set the offense up.

Gostkowski was seen pumping his fist like a young Tiger Woods following the recovery. You can't blame him for being excited. He was elated with the results of his kick during his press conference following the game:

That’s one of those rare things where I’ve been practicing onside kicks for so long and I’ve probably only done like four to five in a game, even going back to high school. It’s just one of those things that you have to focus on what you’re doing and give your team a chance. It’s a very low-percentage play. My job is to get it 10 yards and give the team a chance. That’s what I did and the ball bounced our way, so it was pretty exciting.

It was a marked contrast from the last time I remember Gostkowski trying the "middle bunt" onside kick. The Patriots were down late to the Pittsburgh Steelers and needed a recovery to try to win the game. Gostkowski's kick only traveled seven yards.

Luckily for New England, Gostkowski had the perfect touch against the Browns.