Sunday, December 28, 2008

Stratagems: Not punting the football

Someone else is using math to ruin sports.

Gregg Easterbrook at 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.

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.
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.

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


Duane Rollins said...

I think MLB teams should "start" their starters in the third inning....

Just getting in the spirit of the thing

Anonymous said...

This kind of strategy may well work for HS powerhouses, that are likely to win every game by 4-5 touchdowns, but come on.
Unless you coach a team that thoroughly dominates opponents, it is a dumb idea.
If you happen to be the Detroit Lions, on the other hand, such a strategy doesn't matter...the result is in evitible.
BTW, conventional wisdom in Canadian football, where teams often kick into heavy winds, is to concede a safety rather than punt when backed up on their own goal line.
It's a common practice at the CIS, HS, and junior levels and even CFL teams are known to do that.
That actually makes sense.

sager said...

The point was that football fans should not take it for granted that a team has to punt on fourth down in its own territory -- they have an option. Fans should also try not to think like coaches and enjoy the game.

Don't get me started on the intentional safety in Canadian football, the most boring non-play in sports next to pickoff throws in baseball that are just intended to keep the runner close.

The CFL's trying to put out a good product and fans are subjected to seeing some punter run around in his own end zone for 30 seconds. As others have pointed out, that is not playing football. Leagues have an obligation to stop teams from goofing around and force them to play the game. That's why basketball has a shot clock; that's why the NHL doesn't let you make a line change after you ice the puck.

As long as you can trade two points for 30-40 yards in field position, they'll keep doing it. The CFL, CIS and high school leagues should, as Rob Vanstone at the Regina Leader-Post suggested, make teams kick off from closer to their own goalline after giving up a safety, or give the other team possession much farther upfield.

Right now you don't pay much of a penalty for getting backed up in your own end.

Anyway, the point was to get people to see there is another way. I really like the point that you have more playcalling options if the other team thinks you might go for it on fourth down.

As it stands in the NHL, if it is third down and between 5-8 yards to go, the defence puts an extra DB or two in the game. They might have to keep their base defence in if there's a chance a team might call a run to get closer for a fourth-down gamble.

Little-known fact from the great Buffalo Bills comeback in 1993 against Houston. They had a third-and-4 in their own territory. It was a passing down, but since they were going to go for it on fourth down and Houston didn't know that they handed off to Kenneth Davis. He broke off a big run, and that helped shift the momentum. There is one instance where the four-down mentality worked.

Anonymous said...

Sager who was the MVP in the Champs Sports Bowl for Florida State?

Also at the high school level often you will have a team where the punter has an average of only 25-30 yards. If that is the case I would keep him on the bench as well, as you would gain almost nothing. In college/university ball this shouldn't be the case.

Dennis Prouse said...

I rarely, if ever, punt while coaching at the youth level for just the reason given above. At the youth level, your net yardage gain on a punt is rarely more than 15-20 yards, often less if you end up getting a no yards call. If you are only picking up 15 yards in field position, why not just go for it? I figure that all you have to do is convert the majority of your third downs, say 60% or better, and you are ahead. If your offense is so weak that you can't convert that, guess what? You are going to lose anyway. As Easterbrook is fond of pointing out, though, a lot of coaches are quietly trying to hold down the margin of defeat rather than going for the win.

I'll tell you what, though - when you go for it on third and six in your own end, the traditional football guys go insane. "You can't do that!" is the usual cry. "Oh yes we can", I tell them. Even when you give them the logic behind it, they still won't accept it, as it just isn't "right" in their minds. The traditional baseball guys Michael Lewis describes in "Moneyball" have nothing on traditional football guys.

sager said...

There's a goldmine for the man or woman who wants to write about which sport has the more hidebound people among the "traditional ______ guys."

Hockey probably kicks football's butt. "Dump it in!"