New York Jets’ Mann stuns NFL with ‘rabona’ kick lifted from soccer playbook

New York Jets punter Braden Mann attempted a kick in an NFL game on Sunday that would have made former Tottenham Hotspur star Erik Lamela proud. Adam Snavely compares Mann’s “rabona” attempt to Lamela’s, soccer’s leading specialist in the technique.

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If you’re talking about football in the United States, you’re usually talking about the gridiron variety. In terms of popular culture and how language has evolved, football in the U.S. means the egg-shaped sport more akin to rugby, whereas the world’s game goes by the colloquial English shortening of the “association football” term: soccer.

Sometimes, however, football and football collide in interesting and unexpected ways. And on Sunday, football footballed in a way we’ve never seen football football before. The Jets trailed the New England Patriots by five points, and still had a remote chance of winning the game if they could perform an onside kick (an American football maneuver where the team that just scored can receive the ball once again from kick off, provided they can get hold of the ball once its traveled 10 yards, and before the opposing team can catch the same ball).

And Jets punter/kickoff specialist Braden Mann had a special move to pull off the improbable onside kick: a “rabona.”

And now some explanation is needed for the American football crowd, if the commentary on the play is any indication. The broadcasters and plenty of fans online could only think to call it a “behind-the-leg kick,” or a trick shot, which is understandable coming from a country that made people like Dude Perfect rich and famous. In the soccer world, that type of kick is called a rabona. It’s a neat bit of flair that comes with the added weight of being very embarrassing if you try to use it in a game and it doesn’t work.

Few soccer players have made it work for them as well as Lamela, one of the world’s foremost rabona practitioners in recent years. The Argentine midfielder, now at LaLiga club Sevilla, has scored goals using the technique on more than one occasion. His most recent success came for Tottenham in a north London derby against Arsenal in March of last year, an execution so exquisite it earned him the FIFA Puskas award for best goal of the year.

Kickers and punters have always had an odd place in American football, and the influence of soccer on many of the game’s kicking specialists has always been apparent. Consider the fact that arguably the most successful, well-known, and highly-paid American soccer player of all time might be Josh Lambo. If you’re a soccer fan who has never heard of him, that’s because he only made six professional appearances as a goalkeeper before he retired from soccer, went to Texas A&M as a kicker for their football team, and eventually played in the NFL for several seasons. His career highlight before that? Keeping a clean sheet in a Under-20 World Cup match against a Belgium side that included Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke.

Kickers know soccer, that much is clear. But let’s get to the important question embedded within Braden Mann’s salvo across the footballing universes: was it a good rabona, and did it work?

The form

Not all rabonas are created equal. The very best exponents of the technique can rip off shots that seem nearly as powerful as a regular strike, executing feats of flexibility where their entire kicking leg seems to wrap around the one they standing on in a way that appears almost like an optical illusion. On the other hand, a rabona can result in the kicker landing face down on the turf and the ball going nowhere. We can label Mann’s rabona attempt as robust.

A healthy amount of Mann’s kicking leg gets behind the plant foot in order to execute the chop forward. The form could even be considered very good, considering just how difficult it often is to kick the ball like this and maintain your balance, which Mann manages to do beautifully here.

It’s instructive to examine the form of Lamela, who also scored a long-range rabona against Asteras in 2014, and compare it with Mann’s. The rabona requires you to contort your body in order to generate power, since it’s essentially a contradiction of momentum and body mechanics.

You can see the similar balancing act performed by Mann and Lamela, trying to maintain their center of gravity with an out-turned hip while their head hovers the opposite direction. Full marks to Mann for his rabona form — the man has studied the craft.

The kick

So, as is clear from the video of the kick, Mann isn’t coming anywhere close to Lamela’s levels of power and accuracy. But that’s where the intricacies of American football come into play. He’s not supposed to be kicking it as far or as hard as he can. Because an onside kick must travel 10 yards before the kicking team can legally recover the ball, and the opposing team can line up 15 yards from the spot where the ball is kicked, the receiving team naturally has an advantage in getting to the ball. It’s the whole reason recovering an onside kick is so difficult to do.

While there are variations and some trick plays involved in onside kicks, there are usually two schools of thought when planning one: Either loft it high in the air and give your teammates a chance to run 10 yards down the field for what hopefully amounts to a 50/50 chance at jumping up and catching the ball before the opposing team does, or kick it along the ground, hoping that the ball pops up or bounces irregularly, creating havoc as players try to track where the ball will bounce next.

The Jets’ rabona onside kick, in addition to trying to deceive the receiving team as to which direction the onside kick will be going, is clearly meant to bounce along the ground. It’s not the most picturesque kick in the world as a result, but it’s doing its job here.

The result

This is where we get to the part of the story that is a bit of a bummer, unless you’re a Patriots fan. The onside kick was not successful. The Jets did not come close to recovering that onside kick despite Mann channeling all his powers of soccer, and the visitors won 22-17.

And, what’s more, there’s probably a good argument to be made that it would have been a much better onside kick if Mann hadn’t tried to do a rabona. The ball weakly bounced a couple times before nestling gently into the arms of the Patriots, not fooling anyone. If he had simply kicked it normally, he probably could have put a bit more oomph behind the kick, giving it a bigger and more unpredictable hop.

But that’s not really what the rabona is about, is it? The rabona is about style. It’s about skill. It’s sometimes about only being able to kick the ball well with one foot. And in this case, it’s about doing something that no one expects you to do.

When we look at the Jets’ rabona onside kick through this lens, the one which eschews the dire objectivism of a success/failure binary and instead prioritizes the form, the beauty, the sheer vibes of the kick, we are free from needing to analyze the result of the rabona in any way. We can simply appreciate what it is in and of itself. Which is a kick that transcends sport and language. A beautiful triumph in the face of defeat. A piece of football history, no matter which football you might prefer.

And all it took was a guy named Braden to try it out.


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