There wasn’t a single unit of the Kansas City Chiefs that escaped criticism following their 40-32 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.
That included the special teams. Thankfully, placekicker Harrison Butker didn’t miss any of his field-goal or extra-point attempts during the game, so special teams coordinator Dave Toub didn’t have to face more questions about that when he met with reporters on Friday.
There was, however, some curiosity about what appeared to be a badly botched onside kick attempt in the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs has just narrowed the score to 40-32. But according to Toub, it was a play that very nearly worked exactly as it was designed.
“So I talked to Andy Reid before that,” he explained. “I said, ‘Hey, you want to kick it deep?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s kick it deep’ — and I said we had a special kick that we wanted to try there.”
Toub had identified what he thought was a perfect situation for the play he had in mind — one where the Chiefs needed to keep the Raiders from getting the ball but could still afford to play defense; the Chiefs still had two timeouts left with just under four minutes remaining. Reid went along.
So Butker put the ball sideways on the tee. For all the world, it looked like the Chiefs were going to try to run the same onside kick the Dallas Cowboys had pulled off against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2. But rather than kick the ball slowly on the ground toward the sideline, hoping for a scrum where Kansas City could recover the ball — as Dallas had done — Toub and Butker had something else in mind. Butker also kept the ball on ground — but he kicked it hard.
“Butker has a special talent: that he’s able to hit guys up on the front line; he can target a player and hit them with a line-drive shot,” revealed Toub. “That was the idea: to hit one of the Raiders front-line defenders with the ball. Once it had touched a Raiders player — presumably without being fielded because it was coming in so fast and low to the ground — it would be a live ball the Chiefs could have recovered.
Dave Toub talked about dialing up Butker's kick at the end of the Raiders game. The call was to target a front line returner -- hoping for a ricochet and recovery -- but if missed, the kick still traveled deep.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 16, 2020
It *just* missed between the legs of the player Butker targeted. pic.twitter.com/a0c14wjjD8
“If you go back and look at the tape, the ball actually went through the guy’s legs — the guy we were aiming at,” said Toub. “He had no idea. You can’t prepare — you can’t get out of the way fast enough. That ball is only 10 yards away, and that ball comes at you over 80 miles an hour. It almost hit him. It should have hit him — but it didn’t.”
But even though it didn’t, it was still going fast enough that it wasn’t recovered by the Raiders until it reached their 21-yard line. Henry Ruggs III returned it to the 30 — a field position little different than they would have had if the Chiefs had simply kicked it out of the end zone — and the Chiefs defense went back to work.
“That’s really what we tried to do on that play,” explained Toub, “knowing that if it goes by — if he doesn’t hit him and it goes by him and goes deep — we’re pinning them deep like we wanted to. So we’re trying two things in one kick with that one.”
If it had worked — giving the Chiefs the ball somewhere around their 45-yard line with two time outs and a little under four minutes to play — it’s not at all difficult to imagine a scenario where the Raiders wouldn’t have been asking their bus driver for a victory lap around Arrowhead Stadium before heading to the airport.
And the Chiefs would be heading to Buffalo with a 5-0 record.
In an era where onside kicks have a very low percentage of recovery, leave it to Toub (and Butker) to come up with an onside kick with a reasonable chance of success — one that also gives a better result if it fails. And before you worry about Toub publicly explaining the play concept — which no one recognized in the moment — know that there are more where that came from.
Toub said that Butker has “some other clubs in the bag,” as one reporter put it.
“He’s got a lot,” said Toub. “He works at it. He’ll take our typical Friday practice and spend a half-hour just doing a bunch of different kicks. We’ve got a whole bunch of different things that come up in different situations. That situation was the perfect situation for that kick. It just didn’t work out.”