Roy Exum: Why Punt?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In the current issue of Sports Illustrated magazine which went on news stands Monday, there is one of the most delicious stories the magazine has featured in years and it just might revolutionize the sport of football as we now know it.

At the same time, it gives those of us who always picture life’s water glass as “half full” further fodder to “go for it” one last time before throwing in the towel. In life, whether in business, love, or on our athletic fields, there are literally thousands of “happy endings” that have resulted because we tried ”just one more time.”

Here’s Sports Illustrated’s finding: On the western edge of Little Rock, Ark., there is a high school football team coached by a wizard named Kevin Kelly. Pulaski Academy’s roster doesn’t include a punter because, quite simply, they’d rather “go for it” every time the team is faced with a fourth down.

It has always been conventional wisdom that if any football team’s offense fails to make a first down on a four-down series, you punt the ball away on the last down. Opposing defenses love “three and out” but Coach Kelly thinks that’s nuts. Instead of trying to drive the ball 10 yards in three tries, use all four chances. The reason? He can prove that it makes more sense.

Here’s what he told SI writer Jon Wertheim: "The average punt in high school nets you 30 yards, but we convert around half our fourth downs, so it doesn't make sense to give up the ball," Kelley says. "Besides, if your offense knows it has four downs instead of three, it totally changes the game. I don't believe in punting and really can't ever see doing it again."

Think about that. How many times in life have you gone “three and out,” punting the ball away instead of giving the game one more try?

Coach Kelly says that football teams should take a different view. In the magazine he said even when you are back deep in your own territory, never punt. “When a team punts from that deep, the opponents will take possession inside the 40-yard line and will then score a touchdown 77% of the time. If they recover on downs inside the 10, they'll score a touchdown 92% of the time.

"So [forsaking] a punt, you give your offense a chance to stay on the field. And if you miss, the odds of the other team scoring only increase 15 percent. It's like someone said, '[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,' and everyone did it without asking why."

Is that not great or what? When it comes to the kicking game, which wise coaches have proven is just as integral to success as a good offense and defense, he’s just as radical. He tries an on-sides kick every time. As Wertheim writes in SI, “According to Kelley's figures, after a kickoff the receiving team, on average, takes over at its own 33-yard line.

“After a failed onside kick the team assumes possession at its 48. Through the years Pulaski has recovered about a quarter of its onside kicks. "So you're giving up 15 yards for a one-in-four chance to get the ball back," says Kelley. "I'll take that every time!"

Wertheim also points out that in 2006 an economist at Cal-Berkley, David Romer, did a complex study of the NFL and found that in three pro seasons, there were 1,068 fourth-down situations where, mathematically, it would have made more sense for a team to “go for it” rather than punting it away. Instead, the NFL teams he studied tried to “go for it” only 109 times.

The reason? Kellley believes it is no more than unfounded fear. “No coach gets fired – or ripped on talk radio – for punting on fourth-and-four.” Conversely, when a coach “goes for it” and fails, his proverbial seat gets hot. We’ve all seen it – instead of applauding the courage, society wants to kill a goat.

Now, flash to the Arkansas 5A state championship last year. Coach Kelley’s Pulaski Bruins are up 35-32 with the ball deep in their own territory. On the final drive of that title game, the Bruins converted on four straight fourth-down situations instead of protecting their teetering lead with a punt and, indeed, won the state title.

The moral of the story: you have just as good a chance to make it in life as you do when you kick it away. Further, there is a high school coach in Arkansas, one whose kids have won over 100 games over the last 10 years, who can prove it.

I don’t know about you and your percentages, but I’ll take four chances instead of three anytime. Wouldn’t you love to see one of college football’s “big boys” try it? It would be such devilish fun.

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