Pulaski Academy does not punt.
I first heard about Pulaski from Peter Giovannini of Morrilton, Ark., a high school football official who wrote me to report in astonishment that he had just worked a conference championship game in which the winning team never punted, even going for a first down on fourth-and-6 from its own 5-yard line early in the game. "As a devotee of TMQ, I thought you might like to know at least one coach in the vast football universe has experienced the epiphany and refuses to punt the ball away," Giovannini wrote.
That team was Pulaski -- 9-1-1 after having just won its opening-round game in the Arkansas 5A playoffs. Coach Kevin Kelley reports that he stopped punting in 2005 -- after reading an academic study on the statistical consequences of going for the first down versus handing possession to the other team, plus reading Tuesday Morning Quarterback's relentless examples of when punting backfires but going for the first down works. In 2005, Pulaski reached the state quarterfinals by rarely punting. In 2006, Pulaski reached the state championship game, losing by one point -- and in the state championship game, Pulaski never punted, converting nine of 10 fourth-down attempts. Since the start of the 2006 season, Pulaski has had no punting unit and never practices punts. This year, Pulaski has punted just twice, both times when leading by a large margin and trying to hold down the final score. In its playoff victory Friday night, Pulaski did not punt, converting three of four fourth-down tries.
"They give you four downs, not three," Kelley told TMQ. "You should take advantage. Suppose we had punted from our own 5. The odds are the opposition will take over at about the 35, and from there the stats say they have an 80 percent chance of scoring. So even if you only have a 50 percent chance of converting the first down, isn't that better than giving the other side an 80 percent chance of scoring?" For fourth-and-short attempts, the odds of converting are a lot better than 50 percent.
As TMQ endlessly notes, NFL teams convert about 75 percent of fourth-and-1 tries. Yet highly paid professional coaches endlessly send in the punt unit on fourth-and-1, handing a scoring opportunity to the opposition. In the 2006 edition of my annual don't-punt column, I summarized the odds this way: "Nearly three-quarters of fourth-and-1 attempts succeed, while around one-third of possessions result in scores. Think about those fractions. Go for it four times on fourth-and-1: Odds are you will keep the ball three times, and three kept possessions each with a one-third chance of a score results in your team scoring once more than it otherwise would have. Punt the ball on all four fourth-and-1s, and you've given the opponents three additional possessions. (It would have gotten one possession anyway when you missed one of your fourth-and-1s.) Those three extra possessions, divided by the one-third chance to score, give the opponent an extra score."
Kelley says that when he began to shun the punt, people thought he was crazy: "It's like brainwashing, people believe you are required to punt." Players and the home crowd needed to get acclimated to it. "When we first started going on every fourth down," he says, "our home crowd would boo and the players would be distressed. You need to become accustomed to the philosophy and buy into the idea. Now our crowd and our players expect us to go for it, and get excited when no punting team comes onto the field. When my 10-year-old son sees NFL teams punting on short yardage on television, he gets upset because he's grown up with the idea that punting is usually bad."
Preparing the players for the no-punting future of football is a practical concern. If a coach unexpectedly kept his offense in on fourth down in his own territory, and failed to convert, the crowd would boo and the defensive players become demoralized. If the defensive players understood that a no-punting philosophy occasionally would hand great field position to the other side but overall would keep the other side off the field, they would buy into the idea. Imagine, in turn, the demoralizing effect on the opposition if its defense stops its opponent after three downs, only to realize that no punt will follow. For the 2007 edition of my anti-punting column, the stats service AccuScore did thousands of computer simulations based on 2006 NFL games and found that, on average, rarely punting added one point per game to the score of the teams that didn't punt, while not adding any points to their opponents' final scores. Computer simulations showed that rarely punting amounted to roughly one additional victory per season at the NFL level. At the college and high school levels, the bonus might be even higher.
Why do coaches punt on fourth-and-short -- and worse, when trailing or in opposition territory? "Most punting is so the coach can avoid criticism," says Kelley, who has coached Pulaski for five years and got his start in high school coaching in football-crazed Texas. "If you go for it and fail, the first question in the postgame press conference will be, 'Aren't you to blame for losing the game because you didn't punt?' If the coach orders a punt, the media will blame the defense." TMQ has always speculated that the desire to shift blame explains why big-college and NFL coaches send in the punting team. But take note, these days, the media and the postgame news conference are factors even at the high school level.
Pulaski Academy is providing real-world evidence of the future of football. The most important innovation in years is being field-tested by the Pulaski Bruins, and the test is going quite well. But don't just take Kelley's word for it. The decisive snap of Illinois' upset of No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday came when the Illini, leading 28-21 with six minutes remaining, went for it on fourth-and-1 in their own territory. Sports radio generally called this a huge gamble. Actually, it was playing the percentages; Illinois converted and held the ball for the remainder of the game. Had Illinois boomed a punt, the Buckeyes would have been in business. On Sunday, while trailing at Washington, Philadelphia went for it on fourth-and-1 in its own territory in the second half -- Fox television announcer Daryl Johnston called this "a huge gamble!" It was playing the percentages; the Eagles converted, and they scored a touchdown on the possession, igniting a comeback. Trailing 10-2, Buffalo went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Dolphins' 24 in the fourth quarter: a conversion, followed by a touchdown on the possession, keyed the Bills' comeback. Leading defending champion Indianapolis 16-0, San Diego went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Indianapolis 37, converted and scored a touchdown on the possession, going on to win by two points. Three times Jacksonville went for it on fourth-and-short in Tennessee territory, all three times converting and going on to score touchdowns; the Titans went for it on fourth-and-short twice in return, once failing and once scoring a touchdown. As noted by reader Rene Derken of Leuth, the Netherlands, Green Bay went for it twice on fourth-and-short in Minnesota territory, both times scoring on the possession -- but Minnesota punted from the Green Bay 42. Carolina went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 20, and the play reached the Falcons' 2 before the Panthers' runner fumbled. Yes, New Orleans failed on a fourth-and-1 attempt in its own territory and went on to lose, and San Francisco failed on a fourth-and-1 on the Seattle 2-yard line when trailing big. But of the high-profile fourth-down tries in the NFL and in the Illinois-Ohio State game this past weekend, 10 were a total success, one a qualified success and three a failure. Not too shabby, compared with passively punting the ball.
And consider the punts that boomed when a play should have been run. Trailing 10-0, San Francisco (2-6) punted on fourth-and-1 from their 48-yard line and several minutes later was trailing 17-0. When the game was still tied, the Giants punted on fourth-and-2 from the Dallas 45. Not coincidentally, by game's end they were desperate for points.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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