ATLANTA -- The ending of the Falcons' 26-18 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night included a series of events that NFL fans may never see again.
Atlanta (3-9) defied the longest of odds and recovered three consecutive onside kicks during their comeback attempt against New Orleans (10-2). Officially, only two of the onside kicks counted, as one was called back due to an offsides penalty, but that shouldn't diminish the accomplishment.
"I was glad to just give us a chance, and the guys did a great job of recovering the onside kicks," Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo said.
Koo's first onside kick of the night was initially recovered by linebacker Foye Oluokun, but Russell Gage's early jump off the line drew the yellow flag from the referee's pocket. On the ensuing redo, Oluokun again broke free and made a smooth grab on a short-hopped ball.
"They must have been watching film, and they blocked our three to the outside," Oluokun said. "I don't think they blocked me, so I just ran in to get it. Yeah, they just didn't block me. The ball popped up at the right time. It was near [Alvin Kamara], he shorthanded it and I just went out and grabbed it."
Atlanta converted that extra possession into a 43-yard field goal by Koo to make it a one-possession game with under two minutes to play and setting up the team's third onside kick of the night.
On Koo's third kick, the ball bounces over the head of a Saints player and Oluokun knocks the ball back to the turf where safety Kemal Ishmael smothered it.
"We're never out until the game clock hits zero," Ishmael said. "Everybody, we all had that, 'We're going to win' mentality."
Entering Week 13, NFL teams had attempted 37 onside kicks and recovered just three of them. That's a success rate of just 8.1 percent. A recent league rule change on kickoffs that requires eight of the 11 players on the return team to be within 15 yards of the spot where the ball will be kicked has drastically reduced the effectiveness of onside kicks.
That rule change went into effect for the 2018 season, and the change in success rate for onside kicks was drastic. In 2017, prior to the rule change, NFL teams attempted 60 onside kicks and recovered 13 of them – a recovery rate of 21.7 percent. In 2018, teams kicked 53 onside kicks but recovered only four. Teams went from recovering one out of every five onside kicks to having success on just 7.5 percent of their onside attempts.
Considering the decline of onside kick recoveries, what the Falcons did on Thursday night was simply remarkable. Even counting only two of the recoveries, Atlanta nearly matched the league's total for the entire season.
But for those who saw the entire series of events unfold, it will be hard to shake the image of the Falcons coming up with three onside recoveries. Considering the recent trend with onside kicks, it's something that may never be seen again.