Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN.com has often Don't Punt proselytizers who have produced analyses saying that punting the ball away on fourth down is a poor percentage play. The pointyheads have evidently got to a high school coach in Little Rock, Arkansas, named Kevin Kelley. His team, the Pulaski Bruins, won the state championship without punting all season.
The numbers say that Kelley is right to go for it on every fourth down and, according to the Rivals High article, go for an onside kick on about 75% of the team's kickoffs.
If Pulaski converts on fourth down, it creates a momentum change similar to a turnover. Other high school coaches have told Kelley they would rather see his team punt.Anyone who has covered high school football, speaking from experience, has probably wondered why the stronger teams don't call for onside kicks at least half the time, aside from situations where the outcome is not in doubt. The up men on the return team often have little experience handling the ball. The sight of the ball coming toward them when it's not expected can cause a young athlete to panic.
The Bruins even avoid punting when the defense has stopped them inside their own 10-yard line.
"You can just tell people are in the stands thinking, 'You're an idiot,' " Kelley said.
... If Pulaski has a fourth-and-8 at its own 5-yard line, Kelley said his explosive offense likely will convert a first down at least 50 percent of the time. If it fails to convert, statistical data from the college level shows that an opponent acquiring the ball inside the 10-yard line scores a touchdown 90 percent of the time. If Pulaski punts away (i.e., a 40-yard punt with a 10-yard return) the other team will start with the ball on the 38-yard line and score a touchdown 77 percent of the time. The difference is only 13 percent.
In a general sense, these are fun ideas to play around with on a Sunday morning before settling in for a NFL Sunday. It comes back to a key principle of being a sports fan that some sports geeks can forget. When a crucial situation comes up, don't think of it in terms of of what a certain coach or team might do, suggest what they should try. You'll live longer.
This is apropos since Denver and San Diego play tonight for the AFC West title – someone has to win it, and laying aside what you might think of Ray Lewis or Bill Belichick, you should be annoyed that an 8-8 team might go into the playoffs ahead of the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens or New England Patriots. In those teams' first meeting this season, as you know, Denver beat San Diego 39-38 after passing up a sure extra point to go for a 2-point conversion in the final minutes.
Right before that play, a newsroom colleague said, "They should go for two." Someone pointed out, "They never do that in the NFL," and he replied, "So what? I want to see them go for two, they should go for two. Don't tell me what you think the coaches will do, tell me what you think they should do." Weak, OK-you-win reply: "Go for two, then."
In that spirit, teams should punt less. Kicking the ball away when the other team knows a punt is coming often does seem like a give-up play. Now there are numbers that confirm as much.
Obviously, field goals are another kind of apple. That involves putting points on the scoreboard. Media types who have roasted the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and USC's Pete Carroll for ill-fated fourth-down gambles in big games had a point. Going for it on fourth-and-13 in the Super Bowl when your offensive line is being owned will always be dumb.
The quick kick on third down, where the quarterback lines up in the shotgun formation, inches back a few steps and boots the ball away, is also separate.
A fourth-down punt only seems worth it when the punter has a chance to pin a team inside its own 10-yard line. There was a perfect example Saturday of where Don't Punt might have helped a team. The Wisconsin Badgers were down by only four points late in the first half in their Champs Sports Bowl capitulation against Florida State, facing fourth-and-2 on their own 15-yard line. They punted. About 40 seconds later, Florida State scored a touchdown to open a double-digit lead and went on to win 42-13.
It might have ended up that way anyhow (big, slow Big Ten team vs. a big, swift southern team, don't you know). It didn't have to, though.
Keeping the offense on the field on fourth down allows for more creative play-calling. Third-and-long does not have to be a passing down. The Little Rock school can run the ball, throw a screen pass or use any number of formations. Defenses do not know whether to use a nickel or dime defense. And Pulaski's offense has less pressure on third down.On the previous play, the Badgers faced third-and-6. In their minds, they had one chance to get six yards, not two, so they lined up in a formation that screamed Obvious Passing Situation. Wisconsin is famous for its power running game, but Florida State knew it could sell out for a pass. The Wisconsin receiver caught a short pass and was quickly dropped two yards short of the first down, boom went the punt and soon enough, the rout was on.
It's always enjoyable to think about unorthodox strategies. The Don't Punt strategy seems like a winner. It will not appear in the NFL any time soon, but anything that requires more brainwork for the players and more excitement for fans should be welcome, even the bastards have to resort to introducing empirical evidence.
Arkansas coach punts traditional game plan (Jeff Merotin, Rivals High; via JonahKeri.com)