At last, San Diego State may be shirking the punt

For years, Sabermetrics types and other stat nerds have held one truth to be self-evident: Pretty much all football teams are punting way, way too much. The empirical evidence is on their side; occasionally, so are the actual results on the field in high-profile situations. Economists have been running the numbers for decades, and they all say stop being a bunch of shrinking, punting violets and go for it.

Finally, a major college coach may actually be listening to reason… at least, to an extent, anyway. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego State coach Rocky Long has been doing a little reading on the subject, and is mulling the idea of dramatically scaling back the Aztec punting game this fall:

After reading articles about an idiosyncratic Arkansas high school coach who never punts, always onside kicks, and has tremendous success doing it, Long is toying with the idea for his Aztecs of no punts or field goal attempts once they've driven inside an opponent’s 50-yard line.
"It's a day-to-day theory," Long said with a grin late on Friday night. "I haven't decided because we're getting a feel for it out here. I just read about this guy, and I don't know if I can do that because everybody in the world is going to say this is not Football 101, right?

"But there's a reason why he's winning those games. Maybe he just has better players than everybody else; or maybe it's their team gets used to playing like that and the other teams don't get used to playing like that. It's fourth-and-seven — most defenses run off the field. And now they're going to stay out there. 'What? How come the punt team isn't coming out?'"

The "idiosyncratic Arkansas high school coach" in question is Kevin Kelley, head coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, who started getting national attention a few years back for his data-driven refusal to punt on fourth down – any fourth down, anywhere on the field – and his insistence on following every Pulaski touchdown with an onside kick. And there have been a lot of Pulaski touchdowns: Over the last nine years, the Bruins are 104-19 with three state championships, including an undefeated run to the 4A title in 2011 in which they averaged 51 points per game and punted once. Altogether, Kelley's teams have punted three times in the past five seasons.

"I don't believe in punting and really can't ever see doing it again," he told Sports Illustratedin 2009. "It's like someone said, '[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,' and everyone did it without asking why."

Here's one reason why: For college and pro coaches making seven-figure salaries and facing significantly more pressure than Pulaski Academy, punting almost always carries less risk, if not necessarily on the field, then at least in the equally important realm of job security. The average fan or reporter can't recognize a decision to, say, call for a two-deep coverage that winds up yielding the game-winning touchdown pass for the other side; blame for that could fall on the player, or on some inexcusable call by the officials that preceded it, or on the basic recognition that the other side called "Paper" to your "Rock." You know, it happens. But they certainly can single out a decision to go for it on fourth down in a situation when every available precedent says to punt, and if given the opportunity, they will. There is no more direct route to the hot seat than watching an attempt to buck conventional wisdom blow up in your face.

Exhibit A: One Bill Belichick, owner of three Super Bowl rings as head coach of the New England Patriots, who came in for a tsunami of scorn in November 2009 when, with the Pats leading the Indianapolis Colts by six points with 2:08 remaining in the fourth quarter, he decided to eschew the presumptive punt and try for a clinching first down instead on 4th-and-2 from his own 28-yard line. The attempt failed, the Colts proceeded to score the winning touchdown and Belichick was roundly mocked for "outsmarting himself" in a critical situation.

The nerds were quick to the coach's defense, pointing out that – statistically speaking – Belichick's decision to go for it in that situation carried a significantly higher probability of victory for the Patriots than punting. (And that's before you account for the more intuitive fact that Belichick was putting the ball in the hands of a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback on his side, Tom Brady, with the goal of keeping it out of the hands of another future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, Peyton Manning, on the other.) Critics simply pointed to the scoreboard, and coaches everywhere had one more reason to retreat into their shells.

But the trend on all levels over the last decade is toward a faster, more wide-open game that results in more possessions, more plays and more points than anyone could have imagined a century ago, when the punt was permanently ingrained into the lizard brain underlying all strategic thinking. In games that resembled trench warfare and routinely finished with final scores in the neighborhood of 7-6, the punt was an essential tactic for flipping field position. Simply possessing the ball had much less value relative to the amount of territory offenses had to cover. Many coaches won many games for many years on a fundamental belief in defense and punting.

Today, offensively oriented rule changes and sophisticated passing attacks are in the process of rendering that equation obsolete. Obviously, most coaches don't have the luxury of leaning on future Hall-of-Famers in the clutch. But unless their roster happens to boast a defense full of blue-chip draft picks-in-waiting, and unless they happen to be Nick Saban, value lies increasingly with maximizing the number of opportunities for the offense. For up-tempo spread teams, the kind that occasionally refer to their philosophy as "Basketball on Grass," punting may soon be viewed as the equivalent of letting the shot clock run out. The risk associated with voluntarily ceding a scoring opportunity is always going up, regardless of where you're giving the ball up or where the other team is receiving it.

Frankly, at 62 years old, Rocky Long is an unlikely candidate for leading a strategic revolution. San Diego State went for it on fourth down 23 times last year, slightly above the national average, compared to 61 punts; if the Aztecs bring the ratio below 2-to-1 this year, they'll rank among the most aggressive outfits in the country. (The most aggressive offense in 2011 belonged to Army, which went for it on fourth down 34 times against just 37 punts. Navy was a close second with 30 fourth-down tries and 36 punts.) Eventually, though, some desperate coach somewhere is going to take the plunge, instruct his offensive coordinator and players to always prepare for four downs, not three, and declare punting an extreme act of cowardice and last resort. When he does, an awful lot of his colleagues are going to be interested in the results.

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